What's the state of public transit? Cities bank on light rail, bike shares, streetcars | Crain's

What's the state of public transit? Cities bank on light rail, bike shares, streetcars

St. Louis city voters supported an expansion of the city's light rail system in the April election, but the route between the polls and new stations is shaping up to be long and winding. | Photo by Derek Lee/Crain's St. Louis

As cities around the U.S. prepare to woo Amazon's second headquarters, public transportation officials are taking note of one item high on Amazon's priority list: access to mass transit.

In its request for proposals, Amazon stipulates that the ideal site for its proposed $5 billion second headquarters would include direct access to rail, train, subway or bus routes.

The fact that public transit ranks so highly on Amazon's list underscores what multiple studies show—that public transit is closely linked to a region's economic development, because of its ability to create jobs, attract employers and boost home values, among other benefits.

“There’s a lot of supporting evidence that shows access to robust public transportation is good for people and good for business,” says Doug Kaufman, CEO of Durham, N.C.-based TransLoc, a transportation technology platform. “A vibrant transportation system broadens the worker pool for businesses, as well as increases access to jobs for low-wage workers.”

So what's the state of public transit these days? Crain's took a look at multiple cities around the country, where public officials are banking on everything from bike shares to light rail to good old-fashioned highways.

The Northeast

Somerville's Union Square is betting big on the Green Line Extension
Although its maiden voyage is still years away—the T estimates a 2021 opening—the prospect of a new light rail line is already reshaping business districts in Somerville and Medford. Of the seven new stops planned along the extension, perhaps none is positioned to change as much as Somerville’s Union Square.

New train station, sidewalks promise renewal for downtown Windsor Locks
Forty years ago, Windsor Locks First Selectman Chris Kervick would finish up his paper route and linger a bit longer on Main Street, where he’d visit the shops and stop for a soda. Today, he is determined to bring back the thriving Main Street he once knew—and that vision is on its way to becoming a reality, with a new train station and enhanced commuter rail coming downtown.

Express buses roll out on Roosevelt Boulevard this fall
Can 13 minutes convince Philadelphia drivers sitting in traffic on Roosevelt Boulevard to ditch their cars and opt for public transit? SEPTA and the city certainly are hoping so. SEPTA’s Direct Bus service is scheduled to start rolling this fall, shortening the 47 minutes, on average, it takes the Route 14 bus to go 10.8 miles from Neshaminy Mall to the Frankford Transportation Center to a projected 34 minutes.

The Southeast

Silver Line is already reshaping Fairfax, Loudoun counties
It will be more than two years before the Washington Metro’s Silver Line is completed, but the $6 billion, 23.1-mile project already has brought major changes to Virginia's Fairfax and Loudoun counties. Fairfax County Economic Development CEO Jerry Gordon predicts that within a generation, the number of jobs in the area will grow from 100,000 now to 200,000 and the number of residents will skyrocket from 20,000 to 100,000.

'Good for people and good for business': Public transit gets moving in Raleigh-Durham
Increased frequency, convenience and diversity in transit options are picking up steam across Raleigh, Durham and Research Triangle Park. The stage was set last fall when Wake County voters approved a sales tax increase to help fund a robust 10-year, $2.3 billion plan that includes a plethora of transit projects in Wake and surrounding counties.

Nashville's massive effort in light rail holds both promise and problems
Nashville is just now launching a badly needed comprehensive light-rail transit initiative modeled to some degree after systems in Portland and Denver. As Music City continues to grow tremendously and rush-hour traffic remains horrific, providing alternatives to driving to work is high on the priority list.

The Queen City shifts from traditional transportation options
Charlotte has long been a logistical center for the Southeast, but only recently has the city made inroads in getting its own residents around town in a safe and efficient manner. The evolving solution here calls for a mix of local and express bus routes, multiple light rail lines, streetcars, paratransit and vanpooling.

One year in, companies embrace Atlanta’s bike share program
Atlanta is trying to change its reputation by focusing more on transit, including launching its first bike share program last summer. One year later, local employers say the Relay program offers benefits to companies as a whole, not simply employees—and may even serve to boost Atlanta's national profile when it comes to job-hunters.

The Midwest

Expanded public transit in St. Louis inches forward
Last April, St. Louis city voters approved a local sales tax increase that will generate an estimated $12 million per year toward a MetroLink extension. City officials hope it will be just the first leg in a major expansion of the light rail system. But an ambitious undertaking could still face some rough track, especially if the region’s political leaders can’t come together on a preferred project.

Rail plan derailed, Indy looks to bus rapid transit for economic development
Just a few years ago, politicians and planners seemed on the cusp of realizing a commuter rail line between Indianapolis and the Hamilton County bedroom communities of Fishers and Noblesville. The dream derailed when Hamilton County leaders last year declined to place a funding referendum on voter ballots. But the death of commuter rail might actually be a blessing in disguise for economic development in Indianapolis the rest of Marion County.


TEXRail construction in full swing with trains set to run by late 2018
In a region known for its affinity for personal vehicles and large highways, another publicly funded train project is rapidly speeding toward completion. The TEXRail is a new passenger train that will run from Fort Worth to D/FW Airport, connecting downtown to several suburbs and Terminal B at the airport.

Will light rail carry Houston into the future?
Many wonder where Houston’s light rail system is headed, especially after Hurricane Harvey, which exposed problems brought on by urban sprawl. It’s a question the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County has been contemplating—and now, the agency is asking communities for feedback so it can decide which projects to pursue as part of MetroNext, its regional transit plan.

Toll Road drives Pflugerville expansion
The ambitious State Highway 130 has had its ups and downs, but no place has benefited from the toll road quite as much as the one-time German farm town of Pflugerville. Pre-SH 130, the town was a bedroom community of 24,000 where many got up each morning to drive to Austin to work. Today, Pflugerville is home to 60,000 and has attracted industry, a hospital, hotels, retail and a waterpark.

The Mountain States

Summer project shows off economic potential of Denver's '5280 Loop'
The increasingly traffic-plagued city painted a picture this summer of what could be the future of urban planning and connectivity – and cars were left off the drawing board. Denver created The Square on 21st as a pilot project in the much more ambitious 5280 Loop plan. The 5.28-mile trail around downtown Denver would connect neighborhoods with various new features like gathering spaces and bike lanes.

Valley transit races to catch up with Phoenix-area sprawl
Phoenix reached another milestone in its growing romance with mass transit when the first shovels hit the ground for construction of a light-rail station at 50th and Washington streets, the first capital project under the city's Transportation 2050 plan. But that level of dedication hasn't always been so evident. For decades, metro Phoenix's steady growth was more than matched by its love affair with cars. 

Leaders say expanded transit in SLC would benefit business
Utah business groups believe the proposed expansion of Salt Lake City’s transit system would benefit the business community, and that the city should continue to work with the Utah Transit Authority, rather than create its own transit agency, to develop such plans. But the Utah Taxpayers Association says improvements to the Salt Lake system should be self-sufficient, or funded by its users, instead of bonds being issued for the work.

The West

Seattleites are digging city’s dockless bike share program
The Emerald City is enjoying great success with the nation’s only dockless bike sharing program, currently in the midst of a six-month trial. Users can pick up a bike anywhere (for just $1 a ride), go anywhere and leave their bikes anywhere. The program is growing fast with three private providers and is on pace to become the nation’s largest.  

TriMet offering reduced fares to low-income riders to expand options
Oregon lawmakers have funneled new cash into Portland’s mass transit program that is allowing the system to cut bus fares in half for low-income users. Proponents are pushing for a free transit system down the line.

LA Metro helps small businesses overcome construction challenges
Once it’s operational, Los Angeles's new $2.5 billion, 8.5-mile light rail line is expected to boost economic growth in the area. But during the roughly five-year construction period, equipment, fencing and other material associated with big construction projects has presented economic challenges for businesses—especially small businesses.

A Streetcar Not Desired: Property owners sue to derail long-awaited railcar project
Businesses and residents in downtown Sacramento and West Sacramento have been waiting more than a decade for completion of the Downtown/Riverfront Streetcar Project. They may have to wait a bit longer. A lawsuit brought by commercial property owners could delay that effort for several months or more.

Ride on: Bay Area public transit works to ease traffic woes
Silicon Valley’s overcrowding problem affects not only the housing market but also the Bay Area transit situation in general. Systems such as Caltrain and the Valley Transit Authority, and thoroughfares such as U.S. Route 101, are suffering under the crush of tech commuters.

September 26, 2017 - 1:30pm