Thinking about Capital Region light rail

MBTA Green Line train Wikipedia user Pi.1415926535 CC

An example of light rail in the Northeast: The MBTA Green Line near Boston. / photo: Wikipedia user Pi.1415926535 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

By Sandy Johnston

A couple of weeks ago I tackled the question of whether the Capital Region should build a commuter rail system, answering with a resounding "maybe... at least not yet."

As promised then, today I'm taking on whether our area should embrace a different mode of rail transit: light rail.

As opposed to commuter rail, which uses equipment resembling full-size trains and runs on mainline tracks, light rail typically employs vehicles descended from the trolley cars of decades past, running in streets or on a dedicated right-of-way and powered by electric current. While in a North American context the mode is more common in the Sunbelt, Northeasterners might be familiar with the Green Line in Boston or Buffalo's Metro Rail.

Like many American cities, the Capital Region once boasted an extensive -- in fact, near-ubiquitous -- network of trolley lines. Indeed, we are occasionally reminded of their one-time presence in the strangest of ways.

It is perhaps thus unsurprising that many people here in the Capital Region harbor a fair amount of nostalgia for the trolley paradise lost -- and see in electric traction and steel wheels on steel rails the future of transportation in the region as well as the past.

For example, Kent wrote in the comments section of my previous piece: "I've always wanted a way to visit Troy from Albany and vice versa, via train or light rail. Bus is simply not an option." Kent's attitude is unsurprising; it's a long-established rule that consumers prefer trains to buses.

The existence of that preference, though, is not enough to start asking CDTA to put shovels in the ground. For one thing, research indicates that the preference is largely unrelated to economic or travel benefits. Indeed, when buses provide service as good or equal to rail -- as they are capable of doing, given political will to allocate road space to transit -- the assumed preference more or less disappears.

The key question, then, is whether rail can attract enough additional riders to justify its massive capital cost premium over bus service. The question is not whether people who prefer light rail over buses exist, but whether it is in the taxpayer interest to try to attract them to transit, and if so, whether building rail is the best way to do so.

And let's be honest: light rail, while nice, is very, very expensive. The cheapest projects check in around $30 million per mile, with more complex installations being much more expensive. Meanwhile, CDTA's Central Avenue BusPlus project -- while not "true" BRT -- cost only $16.5 million, or about $1 million per mile, to get off the ground.

Henry and Dobbs light rail vs bus rapid transit cost per mile graph
graph: Henry and Dobbs (2012) APTA/TRB conference presentation

As you can see, both light rail and the more infrastructure-intensive versions of bus rapid transit -- such as Hartford's CTfastrak, which cost about $567 million -- can be quite costly. This video gives a sense of the extent of construction that was necessary to create the CTfastrak busway. It is therefore quite important to determine whether the density of ridership along a particular corridor will actually support that kind of expenditure.

Let's assume any light rail we might see in the Capital region would occur in the three corridors for which CDTA has built or planned higher-capacity transit. What does the ridership density tell us? (Ridership numbers here are estimated from CDTA's most recent annual Route Performance Report.)

CorridorDaily Ridership per mileTotal Daily Ridership
Central Ave. (1, 355, 905)78312,530
Central Ave. (BRT only)3976,350
Washington/Western (10, 11, 12, 114)155010,855
River Corridor (22, 522, 85, 87)4626474

Central Avenue is the best test case since it already has a limited-stop BusPlus service approximating light rail. The Washington/Western corridor has far and away the region's highest density of ridership, but that number is accumulated across four lines on three different arterials; it's hard to know how many of those people would switch to a potential light rail line. The River Corridor between Albany and Troy is similarly hard to calculate, but scores lower than the others. We can assume overall ridership would grow somewhat with the introduction of rail service; but whether potential exists for an increase that would justify the expenditure is a different question.

To put these numbers in context, we can refer to Wikipedia's (yes, yes, but the data is culled from reliable-but-poorly-formatted sources) list of North American light rail systems by ridership. By sorting based on ridership per mile, we can see that CDTA's Central Avenue BRT would be among the lowest-performing in the nation for a light rail line, above only the diesel-powered River Line in New Jersey and Tampa's tourist trolley.

As for the Washington/Western corridor, even if we assume that half of existing riders would switch to a new light rail, it would still perform on the lower end of national comparisons. Given the unpredictability of that calculation, though, and the sheer density of ridership concentrated along it, that corridor may very well be the Capital Region's best bet for light rail anytime in the future.

"But Sandy!" You might say (as Sean did on the previous post), "isn't part of the point of building transportation infrastructure not just to reflect existing trends, but to plan for, and shape, existing growth?"

Yes. Kind of. Let's be careful about that.

Sean is right that there is massive potential for transit-oriented development (TOD) in our region, especially along Central Ave and in the river towns. TOD thrives on brownfields sites and on filling in vacant lots in neighborhoods that feature "good bones" like a strong street grid, but have seen disinvestment; these situations are common in both the Central and Broadway corridors.

Google Map of 42.7149899,-73.713
Wouldn't the old Delaware & Hudson railyard and shops in Watervliet make a nice TOD development?

This approach can absolutely work, but a couple of recent examples illustrate the dangers of the if-you-build-it-they-will-come approach. Both the Green Line in Sacramento and the Waterfront Line in Cleveland were built to support major developments that have not fully penciled out -- and now both are in danger of being shut down because of low ridership.

And that kind of failure can be devastating to transit in a much broader region than the immediate area served by the affected line. Not only is it a waste of capital funds, but, as Tim Kovach lays out, refusal to shut down Waterfront Line is arguably taking much-needed operational funds away from Cleveland's hugely stressed bus services.

It is, of course, not inevitable that build-it-and-they-will-come lines will fail, or damage other transit in the process; but we need to be aware that such projects are, at best, highly risky, especially in cities with moderate to mediocre growth patterns like Cleveland... and the Capital Region.

Look, I'd love to hop on a light rail train from my home in Center Square to Schenectady, or Troy, or the university from which I just graduated. But we need to face some realities. Light rail is really expensive, and our regional transit ridership can't really justify the capital investment. We know that people prefer trains to buses; but we also know that, given equally performing buses, they will still ride buses. More and more cities are getting this.

People love trains. But that love is generally weaker than we know, or biased by non-economic factors, which gives planners and policymakers leverage to use incremental bus improvements and the umbrella of strategies known as transportation demand management to increase transit usage without spending massive sums on capital improvements.

Ultimately, while I'm being cautionary here, I'm cheered that so many folks in the Capital Region want light rail. There's a fine line between the place where obsession with technologies like rail is forward-thinking and the place where it totally misses the point that we live in a slow-growth region that's not especially wealthy and doesn't have a ton of infrastructure money to spend. Let's be careful of that line.

Sandy Johnston recently finished his Master's in Regional Planning and a certificate in Urban Policy at UAlbany. He blogs at and is a vocal presence on Twitter @sandypsj. Before moving to Albany, Sandy had lived in New Jersey, Oregon, Iowa, Connecticut, Chicago, Jerusalem, and New York City. Sandy lives in Center Square/Hudson Park with his partner Gabriella, a state worker, and their two cats. You can reach Sandy with comments or complaints through his website.

Earlier on AOA:
+ Thinking about Capital Region commuter rail
+ Designing for safer Capital Region streets
+ What if tearing down I-787 could actually improve traffic?
+ Thinking about high-speed rail in New York


Quite a good analysis of the pros and cons of light rail here in the Cap District. It seems more logical to spend on true Bus Rapid Transit and a logical infrastructure for that, rather than light rail.

The area and the ridership just aren't big enough. Maybe they will be one day, but until then the focus should continue to be on improving CDTA bus service.

Liking the analysis. Out of curiosity, what's the lifespan of a bus in the region (years and mileage)? What ridership does it need to break even? Forgiveness if you answered that in the previous article.

I love this series!

I still want light rail but acknowledge the many good points in the above story. Glad that there's a space here for a real and practical conversation, rather than an emotional one.

JR, you have to define "break even". CDTA is heavily subsidized (as it should be). I believe only around 15% of their budget comes from fares.

Austin TX tried this and failed miserably. Not as many ride the trains as expected, costs are through the roof, and now the tax payer takes care of empty trains.

The expansion had to be approved by referendum vote, and lost. Just an example of how well it works in a city like Austin which is much larger than Albany.

Invest in better buses and improved express buses like another person posted.

Western Avenue has heavy bus ridership and hits the most desirable stops (colleges, malls, and dwellings). It's also about to become doubly stressed with automobile traffic once the insanely stupid Madison Avenue Diet halves that thoroughfare's capacity. Light rail would make consummate sense up and down Western.

One oft-forgotten component is coordination between transit and land use. it Promoting walkable development within walking distance of major transit stops would make sense. Locally, I've seen little evidence of zoning changes to promote or even allow this.

A 12 acre lot under redevelopment in Colonie is 500 feet from BusPlus stops. It would seem to be a good place for some traditional development with shops and apartments. It could be the start of a village center in a village that has none. What's being built there? A used car lot.

Further up the road, 1 1/2 acres are being redeveloped, directly behind another BusPlus stop. That's going to be a gas station.

These seem like wasted opportunities to me.

I live in Schenectady, but work in Troy. I have the option to take the bus to work, but I instead drive. However, if I could take the train instead of drive, then I would take the train. I hate sitting on a bus, I don't mind sitting on the train. Plus with busses, the threat of traffic jams is still there. Not so with trains. Until we get some sort of commuter rail up here, I won't be using mass transit.

Nick, we will likely never have commuter rail (thankfully). Even worse would be light rail, which does run in mixed traffic and is what this post is about. Personally, as much as I want to see fewer drivers, your driving is already subsidized heavily enough, so there's no need to make it worse by spending billions so you can be stuck in traffic in a shiny train instead.

Zed - very good point about the lack of TOD, but that's asking too much when you talk about Colonie, in the middle of an automobile sewer. The other lines have much more potential because they largely avoid suburban wastelands.

Al, since Madison has far more capacity than it needs (take a look at the lack of fallout from the closure at New Scotland) it's not likely to increase traffic elsewhere. Sorry but you drivers can spend one single extra minute getting where you need to go, and you can do it without complaint. But light rail on Western? You invent traffic problems in your mind, then would add inflexible trains to them? I'm sure we'd all feel better being on a train stuck in traffic or unable to move around obstacles such as crashes as long as we're on steel rails instead of rubber tires.

While I apologize for the fairly bitchy comment, I'm heartened to see the reality take hold that light rail in the Capital District would be a extraordinarily wasteful mistake.We actually have a good bus system for cities of our size, and that's where our continued investment should lie.

I don't often agree with JayK's comments here, but you've got it right this time.

I ride my bike in Western every day and even with the Madison closure at New Scotland, traffic doesn't seem any worse than usual. Madison's current design is a relic of an era of urban planning that we're thankfully moving away from.

While the Madison redesign isn't the right place for it and will instead add cycle lanes, dedicated bus lanes (ideally protected from traffic) on Central Ave. or Washington Ave. would be a much better investment than any rail infrastructure. Again, it's likely to reduce car travel lanes, but would likely improve pedestrian safety, which is also a high priority lately.

A tram? This is what light rail is, a streetcar?
That thing moves with the average speed of 15 mph or so and has to obey traffic lights because it crosses the same intersections as cars.

If we ever got light rail out would have to be like the subway section of Buffalo's metro rail, under Central ave.

JayK- Never say never. If traffic keeps getting worse in the area (which it is), you could see some sort of commuter rail. I agree with the part you said about light rail going through traffic, so maybe commuter rail is the better option. How great would it be to get on a train and not worry about having to sit in traffic on the road? Busses can only do so much, and whether that so much is enough is a matter of opinion.

I think commuter and light rail are both off the table for the region. Maybe back in 1950’s, such a system could have been instituted before sprawl ravaged the region, but I think it’s too late now, given how spread out the region is. Additionally, for those who think such a system will magically be a system onto its own, it just won’t and can’t physically happen, because of…you name it: “Sprawl!” Any system built will have to interact with traffic at this point, as most systems in Europe do. A few sun-belt cities have gotten away with building such systems that are largely independent of the major auto routes, when there cities were just starting to pop, but we no longer have that advantage. The money is better spent reinvesting in our bus system, implementing true rapid bus infrastructure, and shoring up pedestrian safety and efficiencies, especially in our urban core.

The whole fiasco with Iron Gate in regards to CDTA and city efforts to overhaul the Washington Ave and Lark intersection to run more efficiently and safely for buses, pedestrians, and yes, even those who use a car, is a good test case for why light rail will never happened when you apply the NIMBY rule and multiply it exponentially by every business who will see light rail as a threat to where their auto customers’ parking, or blocking sightlines to their business, etc.

@Al, as to the Madison Ave debacle you claim, I haven’t seen how “no lanes” functioning on Madison has really clogged things up in the AMC corridor. The first two or three days, yes, you had auto drivers acting like deer in headlights about how they would survive, but I think this incident has demonstrated that there is plenty of capacity through alternate routes in the area. I commute here daily by bus and foot and things are about the same. The one time I had to drive out of town through this corridor, my commute was a few minutes longer (big deal!!). If little has change with a shutdown of a significant arterial (read that as every lane), I can only see things getting much smoother when we have two functional lanes, plus a third lane to serve as a dedicated turning lane that doesn’t gunk up intersections when we looking at this route rationally and how under-used it is and how necessary it is to shore up pedestrian safety.

Nick, maaaaybe in 50-100 years, if the population doubles at the least, commuter rail will make some sense. We do not have significant traffic issues in this area that would justify such an effort, and our population and traffic are not growing fast enough. Add to that the logistics of commuter rail (I believe 4 different owners of the tracks, stations that would have to be built in many downtowns, etc.) and it's going to take a major change of some sort to make it worthwhile. Beyond that, the available corridors wouldn't take you directly between Schenectady and Troy, so even if it happened, it might still not be economical for you to ride it to work. There was another post recently that laid out the details of such a system - apologies if you were not aware:

Getting back to the topic at hand, Anthony nails it: The only way to make light rail an option that isn't worse than buses is to include grade separation, which is ENORMOUSLY expensive. The only major city in the US (to my knowledge) that is taking on such a project is Seattle, where after spending I believe $20-30 billion in the last 15 years on light rail, they are now putting a $50+billion dollar package before voters this year. It makes sense in a city with Seattle's increasing density, quickly growing population and particular geography. It doesn't even come close to making sense here.

I love rail, and vastly prefer taking the train to taking the bus, but it has to make sense. Maybe someday it will, but that day is a long ways off. In the meantime, I'm quite satisfied being able to live comfortably without a car.

So, rail isn't feasible. But a leisure travel option (that doesn't involve us behind the wheel) between the cities of the Capital Region seems to be something we'd all like.

Something I really enjoyed in San Francisco was the ferry between Oakland and SF.
It would be really cool to have something like the Aqua Ducks back in the area, and/or a ferry between Albany and Troy.
An Aqua-Trolley?

I can't see that it would have much utility besides a novelty, so it could be just a weekend or Fri-Sun thing.

It would also be nice to have the Capital building and the Corning Tower observatory open on weekends for tours/sightseeing.
The concourse would make a great space on weekends for vendor fairs or a farmer's market.

I feel like there's more that could be done to bring life into downtown on weekends to encourage visitors and residents to spend time there.

I know I've said it before, but I dream of the idea of a free circulator, at least in Albany if not an Albany-Troy route.

Like Lana says, weekends or evenings. Would not only make attractions in the various neighborhoods more accessible, but would help with the parking "problem" if some satellite lots were used as consolidated stops. Would be especially great for those events that tend to fill the State Street medians with cars...

I am an admitted rail optimist who recognizes that the North American cities that built light rail systems in the last few decades have had varying degrees of success. But there is success out there, especially in cities where transportation is approached holistically, and leaders recognize the symbiotic relationship between rail, bus and car transportation (and don't, for example, invest simultaneously in rail and in new highways serving the same corridors). And there is success in seemingly unlikely places, like the Sun Belt ...

It has been a long time since I studied this in anything close to an academic fashion, but a couple of points nonetheless:

1. The Capital Region has plenty of sprawl, and yet its major urban, business and education centers align remarkably well along just five connected corridors: (A) Central Avenue (Amtrak to Union/SCCC); (B) Western/Madison (downtown Albany through Albany Med, Saint Rose, UAlbany, to Crossgates); (C) River (Albany to Troy); (D) Northway (Crossgates through airport to Saratoga/Skidmore); (E) I like a Troy-Schenectady connection, though this line would be the last and perhaps least likely. Could this ever happen? It probably won't (for one thing, look at all the jurisdictions that have to come on board), but again, our major business/education centers aren't really that scattered, and as long as the airport and train station are plugged in, there is plenty of ridership potential.

2. Sixty-some years of "malinvestment" (I borrowed this wonderful word from Jim Kunstler) in sprawl have gotten us where we are. Automobile ridership always has been and still is heavily subsidized, and yet is still very costly to individuals. Perhaps a future based on smarter long-term investment would prove worthwhile 50 or even 25 years years from now.

3. A quick word on buses: I have lived a half-dozen places, and the aversion to riding buses seems to afflict an unusually high percentage of people in this market. I don't doubt BusPlus or BRT can change this; that train has already left the station (I couldn't resist). A paradigm shift may be necessary.

The NYS Assembly has been talking about commuter rails since 1999. CDTA buses are unreliable and, they expect their passengers to walk across 4 lanes of highway traffic to get on/off the bus.
We need commuter rail to stay competitive but, we need Uber too and look how we've been denied this transportation need. Upstate NY is such a hard place to live. People resistant to change.

@chris - I find CDTA pretty reliable. it's also a lot more flexible than rail. I don't see how commuter rail would fix your "walk across the street" issue. but maybe investment in bus infrastructure and road redesign/"complete streets" could. or even just route updates/changes. not something you can do with rail.

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