In 2019, there will be 89 major heavy rail, light rail, streetcar, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail projects under construction across the continent. These projects will add more than 830 miles of new fixed-guideway transit—generally high-quality service that will improve the lines of residents. In total, they’ll cost more than $91 billion to complete—most of which is funded by local governments.
In the U.S., the Trump Administration has repeatedly been reluctant to invest in new transit lines, even as the U.S. Department of Transportation has continually poured money into highways across the country. Nevertheless, following the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House after the November 2018 elections, the government has begun releasing funding commitments for major new projects. Those grants are likely to continue as long as Democrats continue to hold control of the House.
But, as in years past, high construction costs plague infrastructure projects in the U.S.—and those high costs make the completion of effective transit networks more difficult. Among heavy rail projects under construction in 2019, the average line in the U.S. will cost $650 million per mile—compared to just $362 million per mile in Canada (when adjusted to U.S. dollars). Among light rail projects, the average U.S. line will cost $339 million per mile to build, compared to just $146 million per mile in Canada.*
In this article, I first compare the networks that are being completed in cities in the U.S. and Canada, showing how different regions are promoting different priorities in their investments. I then document all of the projects planned for opening this year and that are under construction. These are all also mapped out, with additional data, on Transit Explorer, which I update throughout the year. Finally, I provide a table with data on all the projects under construction in North America.
The investments in new rail and bus corridors documented here will certainly alter the manner in which people move around cities across North America. Yet the effectiveness of these investments in making it possible for people to conduct their lives using transit will depend on more than just whether new lines are constructed. It also depends on where those lines are located and how they relate to one another.
It is possible to induce high levels of commuting into downtown office jobs by creating a radial network of lines from throughout a region into the central business district. This type of transit system works best for 9-to-5 commuters and is frequently the model used by commuter rail agencies in the U.S. Yet a radial system is less likely to allow people to conduct other elements of their lives—getting to school, to shopping, or to entertainment—because it fails in serving other parts of the city. Moreover, other than in the downtown core, where it promotes hyper-concentration, it encourages dispersal elsewhere. The alternative is a grid of routes that creates a multi-nodal, multi-destination system of transportation. This allows people to not only get downtown, but to other parts of the city, and it makes denser development possible in other neighborhoods.
The other important question in orienting the design of a transit network is whether to prioritize dense, central communities, or whether to extend the system as far as possible into the hinterlands of the region. The first approach has the advantage of serving neighborhoods that are already walkable and that have the greatest chance of encouraging people to use transit for many trips. The second approach serves people who take the longest trips, though it does so in a way that will likely work most effectively only for those aforementioned 9-to-5 commuters.
Metropolitan regions in different parts of the U.S. and Canada are using varying methods in designing their networks, as illustrated in the following maps, taken from Transit Explorer, all of which are at the same scale. I’ve included a comparison with New York City for context.
Denver, Minneapolis, and Portland are developing primarily radial networks, focusing on expanding access into their downtowns. Their lines—not only those that already exist, but also those under construction and proposed—are widely spaced across the region.
On the other hand, Atlanta, Montréal, and Toronto are largely pursuing a grid of new lines that focus on their respective regions’ densest areas. This approach is likely to increase overall transit use more effectively, though it may not provide as useful an alternative to regional traffic. Los Angeles and Seattle are pursuing transit investment programs that tow the line somewhat between the two.
New York City
Projects planned for 2019 opening
In 2019, two heavy rail lines, seven light rail lines, ten bus rapid transit lines, and six commuter rail lines are expected to open. Of these, the most expensive to build was the 10-mile extension of San Francisco’s BART network to San Jose. This project, which has been under construction since 2013 and was supposed to open in 2018, is expected to serve about 46,000 daily riders; it will eventually be complemented by a further extension of BART to Santa Clara.
Yet the most expensive does not mean the most transformative. Ottawa’s Confederation Line, a new light rail project that replaces a preexisting busway and complements it with a downtown subway, will serve far more users—an expected 240,000 daily riders. In Guadalajara, the city’s third light rail line will serve even more: almost 350,000 trips a day.
Among others, San Francisco’s new Central Subway, which will extend its T-Third Muni Line through downtown, is also remarkable in that it’s been being actively discussed since the 1990s and is the first subway completed in central San Francisco since the BART Market Street tunnel in 1973.
BART Silicon Valley
Ottawa Confederation Line
San Francisco Central Subway
These projects will feature frequent, all-day service. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for each of the new lines opening this year. Fort Worth’s TEX Rail project, which commences operations on January 10, is only scheduled for hourly service between downtown Fort Worth and the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. That will limit the route’s usefulness for people who rely on transit and can’t wait an hour for the next train to show up. The system is planned for half-hourly service once additional trains arrive, yet the project is indicative of a problem among many major transit projects in the U.S.: we’re willing to spend billions of dollars on construction, but we have less interest in paying the long-term costs of making sure trains and buses on these lines are frequent and reliable.
Find a full listing of these projects below; to access their route maps on Transit Explorer, click the icon.
Other projects under construction in 2019—but opening in 2020 or later
Dozens of additional projects will be under construction in 2019 but aren’t planned for opening this year. Of these, by far the most expensive to build will be New York’s East Side Access project, which will extend Long Island Rail Road service to Grand Central Terminal by 2022 ($10.3 billion), and Honolulu’s rail transit investment, which will cross Oahu using automated, elevated trains in 2025 ($8.2 billion).
Yet other regions feature more new projects under construction. In Los Angeles, the new downtown subway for light rail trains—the Regional Connector—is expected to open in 2021, and in doing so improve service for two other light rail lines, the Crenshaw Line (2020) and the Gold Line Foothill Extension (2026). LA also has construction underway on all three phases of its Purple Line subway extension to the city’s west side (2026).
In the Seattle region, the massive expansion of the Link light rail system funded by voters in 2008 is underway, with three expansions from central Seattle east and north. In Montréal, the REM automated metro network is under construction, with scheduled completion in 2023. And in Toronto, four new light rail lines, a subway extension, and several bus rapid transit projects will be under construction this year.
Find a full listing of these projects below; to access their route maps on Transit Explorer, click the icon.
» On the gubernatorial ballot, Democratic and Republican nominees have vastly differing views when it comes to transportation. And voters across the country will be making important choices about referenda.
Yet the real action this year may actually be in the nation’s states and cities, where 36 gubernatorial seats are up for grabs, dozens of transportation-related referenda are being considered, and several major mayoral positions are being contested. Voter input on these races will orient the course of action for states representing about 80 percent of the U.S. population.
If state and local elections are less visible, they are likely to be quite impactful in terms of actually defining how urban transportation works, since cities decide what projects they want to pursue, states allocate resources between transportation modes, and referenda often determine funding streams.
Here, I round up some of the key races at stake this November. Most importantly, there are clear differences in approaches among the candidates running for governor—with, as I show below, many Democrats promoting platforms that would increase transportation funding, support specific transit projects, and encourage transit-oriented development. Republicans, in contrast, for the most part have platforms that actively oppose increasing transportation funding and offer little reason to suspect they would support transit investments.
Of the 76 major candidates for governor in the 36 states with elections (36 Democrats, 36 Republicans, and four Libertarians or independents), a majority have stated positions on transportation on their policy platforms posted on their respective websites. But Democratic candidates are far more likely to have made a transportation-related statement (72 percent have such a statement) than their GOP opponents (just 42 percent of them).
Of the states with gubernatorial elections this year, 72 percent currently have GOP governors.
The GOP candidates who do have positions on mobility almost universally focus on themes such as cutting spending, “improving efficiencies” and “reforms.” Other than the Republican candidate for New York Governor, Marc Molinaro—who supports a plan to generate new funding for the New York City Subway—none of the GOP candidates supports increasing taxes or fees for transportation; in fact, South Carolina gubernatorial incumbent Henry McMaster specifically highlights his veto of a gas tax increase as one of his accomplishments, and Minnesota candidate Jeff Johnson says he would cut car license fees.
In terms of their policies on transportation spending, the Republicans focus overwhelmingly on roads. John H. Cox, the GOP candidate in California, says he would cancel that state’s high-speed rail program; Jeff Johnson would put a moratorium on light-rail construction. None of them appear to make a link between transportation and land use.
The Democrats running for office, on whole, have endorsed quite a different transportation program. The candidate in Alabama, Walt Maddox, suggests a new funding plan for transportation, pointing to a 12¢ increase in the gas tax as a possible approach; Jared Polis in Colorado, Jay Pritzker in Illinois, Jay Gonzalez in Massachusetts, Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan, Tim Walz in Minnesota, Michelle Lujan Grisham in New Mexico, Richard Cordray in Ohio, and Tony Evers all endorse identifying new funds for transportation. Walz specifically commits to increasing the gas tax and Gonzalez to passing an income tax increase on the wealthiest to pay for transportation and education investments.
A large share of the Democrats—unlike the Republicans—say they would improve transit offerings, and provide specific examples of changes they would pursue.
The transit commitments of several other Democratic candidates—all attempting to overturn existing Republican power at the governor’s mansion—are a bit less specific but still indicative of what would happen were they to win the election. In Georgia, Stacey Abrams would make transit a statewide priority, and in Ohio, Cordray would dedicate state funding for transit for the first time in years. Finally, Michigan’s Whitmer would pass a Detroit-region transit plan and Texas candidate Lupe Valdez would find ways to encourage a state with better transit and high-speed rail.
Several of the Democrats, finally, note the connections between land use and transportation and intend to pursue policies related to them. Maryland’s Jealous says he would incentivize transit-oriented development (TOD), and Colorado’s Polis says he would develop new state regulations for TOD. Connecticut’s Lamont says he would eliminate parking requirements around stations to encourage more housing in those locations.
It is worth noting, of course, that the candidates’ platforms profiled here only tell us so much about what will actually happen in their states were they to be elected. Many of them are relying on federal grants for their programs, and they’ll have to get support from state legislatures, which must pass legislation.
Major municipal elections
In the U.S., most mayoral elections occur in off-years, but several cities have scheduled their races for this November. Unlike the gubernatorial elections, of the three elections profiled here, only one has candidates associated with a party.
In Austin, incumbent Mayor Steve Adler is promoting a systemwide transit plan to replace the previous proposal, which failed to attract the support of voters in a 2014 referendum. His opponent Travis Duncan says he would encourage zero-emissions vehicles, provide free public transit, and improve bike and pedestrian infrastructure; others running have less concrete strategies.
in Phoenix, Kate Gallego, who is apparently the frontrunner, says she is a “strong proponent of investing in the infrastructure” the city needs to grow, but her platform makes few other commitments. Her opponent Nicholas Sarwark, on the other hand, specifically promotes the idea of encouraging the city’s residents to leave their cars at home through improved bike lanes, and Daniel Valenzuela supports light-rail extensions.
In Washington, D.C., incumbent Muriel Bowser, a Democrat in this partisan race, has no acknowledgement about transportation in her platform. Nor, unfortunately, do her opponents say much about what they would do differently.
It is also worth pointing out that Toronto’s mayoral election is next week, October 22. There, former head of city planning Jennifer Keesmaat is attempting to oust incumbent mayor John Tory. Keesmaat is running an aggressively planning-oriented campaign, premised on developing a new network plan for transit, expanding light rail, and building a Relief Line for downtown Toronto more quickly. She also says she would tear down a portion of the Gardiner Expressway, which runs along the city’s waterfront. Tory is running a far tamer campaign, but nevertheless does continue to support several transit improvements.
The dozens of referenda related to transportation on the ballot in November have been chronicled extensively elsewhere, notably by the Eno Center for Transportation.
Voters are being asked to consider sales tax increases for transportation at the local level in Baton Rouge, Broward County (Florida), Collier County (Florida), Flagstaff, Hillsborough County (Florida), Marin County (California), St. Lucie County (Florida). San Benito County (California), San Mateo County (California), and Thurston County (Washington). Of these, the Broward, Hillsborough, and San Mateo referenda are the most significant, all raising billions of dollars over 30 years, a significant share of which would be dedicated to transit improvements.
Several statewide referenda are also worth following. In California, voters are being asked (Proposition 6) whether to repeal a gas tax increase and vehicle fee passed by the state legislature in 2017. Colorado voters are being asked to consider two separate referenda that would increase funding for transportation, one of which would increase the sales tax and fund significant transit improvements (Proposition 110), and the other of which would simply bond out funding for roadways (Proposition 109). In Missouri, voters are considering a 10¢ gas tax increase (Proposition D).
Finally, in Washington state, voters are considering whether to impose a carbon fee (Initiative 1631), which would represent a significant effort by the state to address climate issues.
» If cities want to reduce automobile use and address climate change, the status quo simply isn’t good enough. In Chicago, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the lakeshore could turn into a step backwards.
For American cities, highways are a drug. They’re expensive to acquire. They devastate healthy tissue and arteries, replacing previous modes of nourishment with destructive ones. They force the rest of the body to adapt to their needs, and they inflict pain on those nearby.
After a massive slash-and-burn campaign that forced the demolition of hundreds of already inhabited, central-city neighborhoods from the 1950s through 1970s, few U.S. cities continue to build new expressways within built-up areas (though there are somedepressingexceptions to that rule). Less funding from the federal government, combined with active opposition, seems to have done these projects in.
But the difficulties related to drug use don’t stop after the user has begun. Indeed, once started, drugs are difficult to stop abusing—even when everyone is aware of their negative effects.
Herein lies the tension at the core of transportation politics in many American cities. Though elected officials and planners claim an interest in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing transit use, and producing more livable, walkable communities, when push comes to shove, it’s nearly impossible for them to make the hard choice: Reducing or eliminating space for automobiles. Indeed, in many cases, that choice isn’t even available for discussion.
The planning for the renovation of Chicago’s North Lake Shore Drive—now underway—offers a useful example of this phenomenon. Here, in a city along the shores of beautiful Lake Michigan and with high transit use, the possibility of tearing down a roadway that prioritizes car use and blocks access to the waterfront has never really been up for discussion. In fact, as I’ll describe below, the city and state departments of transportation are pushing rapidly toward the road’s reconstruction in a manner that will increase the ease by which drivers get around.
A change that would actually meet climate and transportation goals set forth by the city and region is off the table. In the process, the city will miss a unique opportunity to reorient half of its lakefront to the needs of people, not cars. Too many cities have made, and continue to make, the same mistake.
The lakefront expressway
Chicago denizens are practically obsessed with quoting Daniel Burnham, who pushed to “make no little plans” and who co-wrote the 1909 Plan of Chicago with Edward Bennett. That plan recommended the creation of parks and a parkway along the lakefront. Many of the parks have indeed been built, producing—in some places—one of the nation’s most beautiful waterfronts.
Residents also point to Montgomery Ward’s push to ensure that the lakefront remain “forever open, clear and free.” While this stance was motivated at least in part to maintain views from his department store, it has inspired generations of Chicagoans to preserve and improve lakefront parks.
But Chicago has a disjointed relationship with its lakefront.
Though the 1909 plan is frequently discussed as if it has structured the city’s development, in fact, most of its waterfront interventions—such as a series of park-islands—have not been completed. And Ward’s efforts to keep the lakefront “free” didn’t do much to prevent the construction of a massive convention center along the water.
But the most dramatic violation of the parks-and-freedom message put forward by Burnham and Ward was the creation of Lake Shore Drive, a multi-lane roadway that now extends from 67th Street* in the South Side to Hollywood Avenue on the North Side, roughly 16 miles via downtown.
As envisioned in the 1909 plan, the road would be a “combination of park and driveway” without truck traffic. And as initially built, it came close to that purpose, looking and acting something like a tree-lined city street along which vehicles moved at slow speed.
But it was rebuilt over time, in the 1930s acquiring most of the function of an urban expressway and being transferred from the Park District to the city in 1959 and then to the state department of transportation in the 1970s.
Responding to concerns about the lakefront’s future, in 1973, the city passed the Lake Michigan and Chicago Lakefront Protection Ordinance, which was designed to prevent further intrusions onto the lakefront parks. It legislated that “no roadway of expressway standards… shall be permitted in the lakefront parks.” The city code defines expressway as a road designed for speeds in excess of 45 mph.
Lake Shore Drive, however, is an expressway in all but name. It features grade-separated intersections outside of downtown and, despite the speed limit, anyone who has ever used the road knows its drivers treat it as if it were an Interstate. It features four lanes in both directions. Because of its position along the lakefront, the highway acts as a barrier between the city and the lake, in several cases cutting through the heart of parks. It is a great source of noise and pollution. It would be delusional to claim it meets Burnham’s vision for the lakefront.
It has also, along with the construction of other (official) expressways, encouraged the transformation of Chicago from a transit-focused city to an automobile-dominated region. The city’s transit mode share—the portion of people who use public transportation to get to work—has declined from 44 percent in 1960 to just 28 percent in 2016.
Automobiles dominate on the route; on the busiest section north of downtown, it serves up to 170,000 cars daily. Nevertheless, others have taken to using the Drive for other purposes. 69,000 daily riders use bus routes that travel along it; 31,000 daily walkers and bikers navigate the adjacent trails.
The southern portion of the facility was renovated in the early 2000s renovation, but the northern portion, which is more used by all types of users, is falling apart. The road is degraded; congestion is common; bus services are frequently delayed; and the path is crowded with bikers and pedestrians.
A planning process is now underway, to be completed by 2020, but construction funding remains uncommitted.
Given the size of the road and its position along the city’s famed waterfront, choices about what to do with it will define part of the city’s future. Will the city take advantage of the opportunity to reconnect its urban blocks to the waterfront and prioritize transit, walking, and biking? Or will it simply reinforce the status quo?
Planning for a sustainable, transit-filled future
Given what planners and elected officials in the Chicago region say they want to do, you’d think that the possibility of transforming the Drive into something else would be a major priority.
After all, the region’s new comprehensive plan, developed by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (the MPO), endorses the goal of doubling transit ridership, a goal the agency has been committed to since 2010. Moreover, the plan recommends “mak[ing] transit more competitive” and increasing the share of regional commuters traveling by modes other than driving alone from 30 percent to 37 percent in 2050.
The City of Chicago and Cook County—the large county that includes and surrounds the city—have both signed on to a popular declaration holding that they will support the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement through local policies. This implies that they will identify mechanisms to reduce local greenhouse gas emissions. Now that transportation accounts for the largest share of American emissions, you’d think that would be a focus.
Similar goals are endorsed by cities and regional agencies throughout the U.S. New York City, for example, hopes to reduce its carbon footprint by 80 percent; Seattle expects to become carbon neutral and reduce the share of commuters driving alone to work from 43 percent today to 35 percent in 2035. Each suggests that future investments should prioritize reducing car use and encouraging transit ridership.
A reworked drive that doesn’t add up
From the start of planning for the future of the North Side portion of the Drive, it’s been clear that neither the state nor city departments of transportation—which are leading its $2-3 billion redevelopment—are particularly interested in rethinking the way the highway works. The route of the areas being studied is below (with north to the right and south to the left).
The planning process identified its goals early on, back in 2014, which included “improving vehicular mobility” as a primary purpose for the project. In making the choice to “improve mobility for all users,” the planning process was effectively dismissing alternatives, such as eliminating the roadway altogether. From the beginning, the choice of “improving mobility” put in stone the rejection of turning Chicago’s lakefront into the people-oriented space other cities have executed so successfully.
The focus on “mobility” rather than “access,” also suggested a prioritization of speed rather than other goals, such as creating more livable neighborhoods along the lakefront with better access to jobs and commercial needs. For, while the project is a “transportation” one, its impacts will be on land use.
Having to stick to the 1973 ordinance, the project cannot increase minimum speeds to levels higher than 45 mph. Planning documents thus far have suggested no effort to expand the number of lanes for cars. Yet the purpose of improving vehicular mobility has essentially disallowed any alternative that would lower automobile capacity.
It is worth thinking through what an alternative to today’s lakefront might be, because that act of conceptualization—imagining a different world—has been remarkably absent from the discussion.
Consider, for example, not a Chicago cut off from its lakefront by a highway that forces pedestrians to pass under or over it, but rather a city whose neighborhood streets turn into pathways down to the beaches. A rapid transit line with welcoming stations every half mile offering an alternative to the packed Red Line ‘L’ down the street. New opportunities for development, featuring water-fronting retail and cafes, without the ever-present noise and dust of the freeway—allowing people living and working in the towers lining the lake to finally open their windows. Larger parks, no longer divided in two by concrete.
None of these concepts were seriously considered. The city’s residents had little chance to explore what they might think of these ideas.
What officials do seem to have agreed to, after several years of planning, are the complete reconstruction of the highway, with eight lanes throughout the corridor and new dedicated bus lanes, for a total of 10 lanes, and increasing capacity over extant. These changes will not add any transit stations along the corridor; buses will simply use the route as an mechanism for moving between neighborhoods and downtown and a way to avoid getting stuck in traffic. Current projections suggest the bus lanes could increase transit use by 60 percent.
Despite the improvements for transit service, it’s hard not to conclude that the project will have as its primary effect the reinforcement of the highly automobile-oriented environment that now dominates the lakefront.
The extraction of buses into their own lanes will leave eight purely for automobile use; that simply means more space for personal cars. And the new corridor will be up to 19 lanes wide in some locations, such as south of the intersection with North Avenue, as shown here.
Enmeshed in brand-new concrete, that’s a barrier to the waterfront that won’t be altered for another half century.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the proposed renovations will make driving easier. After all, the project is being partly led by the state department of transportation, which a few years ago attempted to force a new highway down the throat of the Chicago region, ignoring the evidence suggesting its downsides. It was only stopped by litigation over its environmental impacts.
Moreover, the Drive is, of course, very well-used by motorists. Their collective anguish at the possibility that their express route to downtown might be eliminated would surely capture much of the discussion in future mayoral and gubernatorial campaigns.
Even the planning profession’s tools would have a role to play in reinforcing the status quo. Transportation models premised on resistance to mode change undoubtedly would demonstrate a city paralyzed were the highway to be eliminated.
But the story is more complex than that. Along the waterfront itself north of central Chicago, no Census tract has more than 50 percent of its resident commuters driving alone to work. Indeed, in most of those tracts, about 50 percent of commuters travel by transit and only about 30 percent drive alone to work (35 to 40 percent of households in this area own no cars). Thus the people who would be most impacted by the replacement of the expressway with something else—the people who live nearby—are already limited car users, as shown below.
There is, just as importantly, significant evidence that cities that have replaced waterfront highways with surface boulevards or simply pedestrian space don’t suffer from massive congestion on nearby streets or a crushed economy, as some transportation models would suggest. Expressways eliminated from use in cities like Madrid, Paris, San Francisco, and Seoul have seen their traffic “evaporate” as trips formerly taken by car have moved to transit, walking, and biking.
These cities’ economies certainly haven’t suffered—in many cases, they’ve actually seen more development and higher property values as the fumes and noise of cars have diminished. These transformations suggest that people are able to adapt, even in the face of massive alterations in urban infrastructure.
But these arguments are largely irrelevant to decision makers, because the possibility of eliminating the expressway along Chicago’s lakefront wasn’t struck from discussion because of some comparison of the merits of alternative solutions. This possibility has been largely ignored because planners and elected officials in US cities are mired in the wishful thinking of a drug abuser. They’re aware that projects that benefit automobile use will diminish transit ridership and increase greenhouse gas emissions. They just want one more dose, one more chance to address the needs of car users.
The problem, of course, isn’t just a matter of this project alone. Perhaps Chicago could achieve its climate and transit mode-share goals even with Lake Shore Drive remade as it is. The issue is that the Drive’s reconstruction is just the latest in a decades-long stream of decisions to reinforce the automobile-focused status quo rather than fight it. Every time a city makes the choice to do something like rebuilding an expressway to carry more cars than it does today, it is pulling away from the broader efforts it should be pursuing.
Opportunities like the reconstruction of Lake Shore Drive come along rarely. They present the ideal circumstances to pilot new ways for people to get around—to promote change that might otherwise be impossible to move forward. Yet city after city continues to miss the chance. New York and Seattle, noted above as other cities also looking to reduce their climate impacts and increase transit ridership, are also the sites of major highway redevelopment and construction projects.
Ultimately, it is naive to believe that a city can both achieve its progressive goals and continue to invest in projects that reaffirm the way the transportation system currently works. Regional plans to double transit ridership won’t happen at the same time as space for automobile circulation is expanded. These two are irreconcilable; cities are going to have to choose what is more important to them. You can’t take another hit while you’re trying to go cold turkey.
* An extension of the highway, from 79th through 92nd Street on the South Side, was completed in 2013, but it is unconnected to the rest of the..