Objections Threaten to Stop Rail Expansion Projects In Their Tracks

A Buffalo-area member of Congress and a freight railroad in Minneapolis could bring rail transit expansion plans in both cities to a halt, at least temporarily. Meanwhile, down under, one rail transit project struggles while another sails along in Sydney.

A dispute over a key shared right-of-way jeopardizes the extension of the Green Line light rail in the Twin Cities. (Photo by Oscar Perry Abello)

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Our weekly “New Starts” roundup of new and newsworthy transportation projects worldwide.

Freight Railroad Rejects LRT Deal in Minneapolis

The Southwest LRT project currently working its way towards construction in Minneapolis will share two short stretches of right-of-way with a freight railroad that operates service in its corridor. The Star Tribune reports that the freight railroad has turned thumbs down on a deal the Metropolitan Council of the Twin Cities (Met Council) offered to address its concerns.

The freight railroad, the Twin Cities & Western short line, was to have assumed “common carrier” responsibilities along six miles of the Southwest LRT route, extending the green line of the Twin Cities’ light rail system. This would have made it responsible for overseeing the shared use of the tracks in the corridor. But talks over that role broke down, and as a result, that role was reassigned to Hennepin County, which will acquire the right-of-way and hand ownership over to the Met Council.

The council then offered Twin Cities & Western a compensation package totaling $11.9 million, with an extra $230,000 thrown in for the railroad’s expenses. In exchange for the money, the deal called for the railroad to cooperate with the Met Council on the construction of the line and give up any potential legal claims against the council.

Last week, the railroad turned down the deal outright.

The railroad, which council officials earlier said was seeking a “sweetheart deal” on the shared corridor — a charge the railroad denied — rejected the council’s offer as “highhanded.” The railroad says it wants full compensation for any damages, service disruptions or service degradation arising from the line’s construction.

Twin Cities & Western President Mark Wegner said the railroad would also fight a broader agreement covering all freight operations along the corridor. The agreement requires approval from the Federal Surface Transportation Board.

The council plans to open bids for building the line on May 3, with work to begin next year. It’s unclear how the Twin Cities & Western rejection of the council’s offer will affect the line’s construction timetable.

Buffalo Congressman’s About-Face Throws LRT Expansion Plan In Doubt

Buffalo-area elected officials and the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority are currently pressing ahead with a $4.8 million environmental study that would be the first step towards a proposed extension of the 6.2-mile light metro from its current terminal at the University at Buffalo South Campus to its North Campus in the suburb of Amherst and beyond. The proposed extension would double the length of the existing line, which runs in a subway outside downtown Buffalo, and has a currently projected price tag of $1.2 billion.

But in February, one elected official who had been in favor of the project, U.S. Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY), reversed his position. Now, The Buffalo News reports, his about-face could stop the proposal in its tracks.

The reason? Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), whose support will be needed to help secure Federal funding for the extension, says that he is willing to advocate for the project, but only if everyone in the community is on board.

Higgins reversed course on the extension because he now believes the money would be better spent rehabilitating the existing light metro line, which was completed in 1986 after seven years of construction.

While the proposed extension would finally complete the original projected line first proposed in 1975, Higgins notes that increased activity in downtown Buffalo, along with a separate project to rehabilitate the former Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad Terminal at the foot of Main Street, makes repairs to what’s already in place a higher priority.

Other local officials won’t comment on Higgins’ reversal publicly, but the News article states that many in Buffalo City Hall, privately agree with Higgins.

“We certainly don’t object to the idea of an extension, but there’s a lot of needs on the current Metro Rail,” one City Hall source who asked not to be identified told the News. “We’re not looking for five new stations outside the City of Buffalo while not paying attention to those inside the City of Buffalo.”

Higgins does support the current environmental study and said that he was confident that it would conclude that not building the extension now was the wiser course of action. And Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority officials and other local elected officials have taken steps to secure funding to address the deferred maintenance issues.

Sydney Metro Sprints Toward Completion While Light Rail Falters

There’s good news and bad news from Sydney, where work is underway on both the city’s first metro line and a new light rail system.

First, the good news, as reported in The Sydney Morning Herald: The last section of the AU$8.3 billion (US$6.31 billion) Sydney Metro Northwest line has been completed. What’s more, the entire project will finish at least AU$500 million (US$379.8 million) under budget.

New South Wales State Premier Gladys Berejiklian said that clamping down on costs produced the savings, which will go towards other parts of the AU$20 billion (US$15.19 billion) Sydney Metro project, which will take the Rouse Hill-Chatswood Northwest segment into central Sydney via tunnels under Sydney Harbor, then south and east to Chatswood.

The savings mark a dramatic turnaround in a project that at the outset was plagued by delays and cost overruns largely related to problems with building the line’s elevated section.

The Sydney Light Rail project could use such a turnaround itself. News.com.au reports that the contractor working on the 12-km (7.46-mile) light rail line connecting central Sydney with its eastern suburbs has pushed back the already-delayed completion date of 2019 one more year.

The report quotes New South Wales Transport Minister Andrew Constance as saying the delay was “unacceptable” and that the ALTRAC consortium needed to “accelerate” its timetable.

That may be difficult for the consortium to do, given that it is in the middle of a messy legal battle with one of the consortium partners, which is seeking AU$1.1 billion (US$840 million) in damages to cover what it called deception on the part of the New South Wales government.

If the government loses, that would add further cost to a project that had been budgeted at AU$1.6 billion (US$1.22 billion) before an AU$500 million blowout that also pushed its projected opening from 2018 into 2019. Work has stopped completely on some segments of the line, and others are as much as nine months behind schedule.

Know of a project that should be featured in this column? Send a Tweet with links to @MarketStEl using the hashtag #newstarts.

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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.

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Tags: transit agenciesminneapolistransit stationsbuffalo

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