We're leading an economic analysis of six of the busiest and most cost-effective light rail lines in America in order to give an authoritative answer to the question everyone wants to know:

How much does it cost and how do we pay for it?

Study contributors:

Yonah Freemark, Metropolitan Planning Council and the Transport Politic blog


Zongzhi Li, Director of Transportation Engineering and Infrastructure Engineering and Management, Illinois Institute of Technology


Mark Walbrun, Vice President, Rail and Transit Practice Leader, Mott MacDonald Engineering


John Green, Senior Rail Project Manager, Mott MacDonald Engineering


Kenneth Dallmeyer, former senior transit planner, Chicago Transit Authority


Steve Schlickman, former Executive Director of UIC Urban Transportation Center and former Executive Director of Regional Transportation Authority


John Norquist, former President of Congress for the New Urbanism and former Mayor of Milwaukee


Randy Neufeld, Executive Director of SRAM Cycling Fund and former Executive Director of Active Transportation Alliance


Steven Granson, Transit Project Manager, HDR Engineering


Ryan Richter, Transportation Planner, HNTB Engineering and Transport Nexus blog


Ben Peterson, Google Maps


Alan O’Connell and Anthony Pelikan, CartoFront


Tristan Crockett, Software Engineer at ThinkCERCA and ChiHackNight


Charles Porter, Owner, Development Management Associates

1. Streetcar routes 


Our streetcar routes are designed to be cost-effective. They have very high initial ridership, attract new riders to transit, spark transit-oriented development, reduce congestion, complement the L and Metra, and link major attractions together and to the Loop. They’re designed to enhance Chicago’s image as a great place to live, work, and visit, and to demonstrate to the voting public the benefits of investing to maintain and expand rapid transit.


Explore the six potential streetcar routes


2. Changes to bus network

Bus networks are always restructured around new rail lines. We need to propose changes to bus routes in order to accurately estimate streetcar ridership and the cost savings from bus service replaced. 

Review our concept for restructuring bus routes


3. Operating plans and cost

Detailed plans and operating cost estimates are being developed now. We’re designing street sections for all typical conditions and comparing to existing high-capacity tramways with similar conditions in order to accurately estimate operating speed.

Frequency: 3-5 min in peak hours, 10 min off-peak.

Stops: about twice as often as the L and half as often as the bus.

Cost: where ridership and speed are high enough, light rail costs less to operate than buses stuck in traffic.


4. Ridership estimate

We’re using the RTA’s regional STOPS model to estimate ridership and the reduction in vehicle miles traveled, following the methodology used to compete for federal funding.

Preliminary estimates based on bus service replaced indicate two or three times as many riders per mile as the average L line. 


5. Traffic impact

We’re designing and analyzing a signal priority system that prevents the streetcars from getting stuck in traffic without exacerbating traffic on the surrounding street grid. We’re studying the impacts of new light rail lines and changes to bus routes and car traffic on congestion and travel time. 


6. Capital cost

We’re estimating the capital cost of each route based on domestic and international precedent and local conditions.


The capital cost for building and equipping our proposed streetcar lines has been preliminarily estimated at $57 million per mile. 


7. Value capture potential

The streetcar increases the value of nearby property due to (a) proximity to high-quality transit and (b) TOD upzoning for higher density and less parking.

This study will propose appropriate zoning for the streetcar corridors, and estimate the growth in property value in each corridor that would not occur but for the streetcar. It will demonstrate the potential for capturing some of that added value to provide a revenue stream for the debt service on the initial capital expenditure.

We hope to present the findings in an interactive website that allows visitors to understand and critically assess the assumptions in different scenarios. It may also allow visitors to test a variety of different scenarios by recalibrating factors such as the extent of the streetcar network, zoning regulations in the corridor, intensity of new development, and value capture mechanism.


8. Assessing cost-effectiveness

We will compare the cost-effectiveness of the proposed routes to other transit investments in the regional funding pipeline, and to others around the nation to estimate the likelihood of receiving federal funding.


9. Renderings

We hope to produce accurate renderings of key places along the network to give people a realistic understanding of the changes we’re proposing.

If you'd like to contribute your expertise to this effort, or just leave a comment, email us.


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