Consultants Face Big Challenge Studying Regional Rapid Rail
Posted by Transit Action Network on August 16, 2011
Parsons Brinckerhoff (PB), a highly-respected transit consulting firm, has begun work on the $1.2 million Jackson County Commuter Corridors Alternatives Analysis. This analysis will evaluate two corridors from the Regional Rapid Rail (RRR) concept — one through Blue Springs using the Kansas City Southern line, and one through Lee’s Summit using the old Rock Island line — and compare commuter rail to alternatives such as express buses.
The RRR concept, widely presented around the region last year, proposed six commuter rail corridors using underutilized and abandoned rail lines to provide a rail system from the suburbs into Union Station. After preliminary review of the concept in MARC’s Smart Moves Transit Implementation Plan Phase II: Commuter Corridors Study, it was determined that only two of the corridors warranted further study in the near term. Studying the other corridors was postponed due either to insufficient ridership or being too costly given the projected ridership.
The two corridors now being studied provide plenty of issues to resolve. Perhaps the biggest unresolved issue is the so-called “Common Line,” which the two routes would share. There is no underutilized track for the 7 miles between Leeds Junction (just west of the Truman Sports Complex) and Union Station. Nor is there readily usable right of way for the 2 miles immediately east of Union Station. Therefore, several alternatives are being considered. These include running on city streets (e.g., Truman Road) at a maximum speed of 25 mph, or perhaps along the I-70 right-of-way. The former requires moving or hardening utilities, while the later requires modifications to bridges and exit and entrance ramps. TAN doubts that projected ridership can justify the cost entailed in any of these alternatives.
The Common Line is critical to the feasibility of the RRR system. If a cost effective solution to the Common Line remains elusive, or if a potential solution undermines operating speed, then the whole RRR concept falls apart.
There have been two previous studies of commuter rail in the I-70 corridor through Blue Springs using existing rail. In both cases ridership was insufficient to justify the cost of using existing rail into downtown Kansas City. The RRR concept and the most recent study take that conclusion — plus the freight railroads’ assertion that they will not allow commuter rail on existing tracks into Union Station — and propose a Common Line on new rail as the solution.
There are several other outstanding concerns from the Phase II study, and there have been lively and skeptical discussions within the MARC Transit Committee. TAN has been vocal in expressing our skepticism. Cost estimates, travel times, and the absence of credible ridership projections have generated great concern too. All of these issues remain today for PB to resolve.
An Alternatives Analysis involves consideration of multiple modes. There are new technologies and innovative ways to make Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and/or express buses compare favorably with rail. Buses are efficient, cost-effective and can be used to effectively combat congestion. The fact that they can offer greater flexibility and a higher level of service for riders means that rail is not the only possible solution to our transit needs. Nor is rail necessarily more environmentally sustainable than modern buses, particularly where ridership is relatively low.
TAN has maintained a consistent position regarding transit service in commuter corridors. If rail is shown to be cost effective, to function well enough to attract additional commuters, and to qualify for FTA funding, then it should be implemented, along with the necessary local bus routes to support it. However, if rail is found not to be viable, and if express buses are again found to be the more feasible alternative, then the region should expand its commuter transit system using express buses. We should not continue to put off improving the region’s transit system just because rail isn’t practical at the present time. We need to build a system that serves commuters today, and that makes sense for our region for the future. The Alternatives Analysis should guide the region to an appropriate decision.
TAN has sought and been granted a formal role on the AA Advisory Committee, and we have already met with the study team. In addition, we’ll closely follow the study through our representation on MARC’s Transit Committee.
What will be the best way to provide mobility from the suburbs into the central business district? Stay tuned. The Kansas City region definitely needs to improve its public transit system, and this study will help us decide how best to meet that need.