We have (part of) a contract!

(http://flickr.com/photos/torchondo/489927544/, via Wikipedia)

Today, the METRO board approved a design-build-operate contract for 4 of the 5 new light rail lines. At the same time, the board gave its chosen contractor, a group lead by Parsons, notice to proceed on the first part of that contract: the East End Line, 29 light rail vehicles, and preparatory work on other lines. Later notices to proceed will cover the rest of the work on the North, Southeast, and Uptown lines; those will wait for federal funding agreements on the North and Southeast lines, which METRO expects in the third quarter of this year. If that federal funding does not materialize, METRO has the right to not proceed. The University Line will be the subject of a separate contract.

A few items of note:

  • This is a design-build-operate contract. That’s a relatively new way of doing business. On the Main Street Line, METRO hired an engineering firm to completely design every part of the line, then got bids from construction companies to build it, then hired the staff to run it. These new lines have only been schematically designed; the contract signed today covers completing the design, constructing the lines, and operating them for 5 years. That is intended to eliminate finger pointing — the builder can’t blame problems on the designer, for example — and to lead to a more efficient design that takes the construction process into account.
  • The cost for these four lines (20 miles) is $1.46 billion. That’s $113 million less than was projected last August, but it’s also a reflection of how much construction costs have gone up in the last 5 years: the Main Street Line cost $45 million a mile; these lines will cost $73. Incidentally, the cost does not include the intermodal terminal; that project has been shelved (for now, at least).
  • The contract includes a light rail only overpass on Harrisburg, not the road+rail underpass the neighborhood wants. But I wouldn’t consider that a done deal.
  • The new light rail vehicles (103 of them) won’t be the same as the 18 we have already. The current ones, made by Siemens, have 4 doors on each side and are 70% low floor — the seats at both ends are two steps up from the rest. The new ones will be 100% low floor, with 6 doors on each side. That will handles crowds at stations better, and it also leaves more room for bikes and strollers (though there’s no mention of bike racks on board). These will be the first 100% low floor light rail vehicles operating in the United States. The cars will be made by CAF, a Spanish company. They’ve built LRVs for Pittsburgh and Sacramento (where they seem to be performing well; the METRO cars, though, will apparently be based on vehicles now running in Seville (above). Those cars are a good fit: they’re just slightly longer than the current cars, but still short enough to fit a 2-car train in a Downtown blocks; they’re exactly the same width and the floor is the same height as the existing cars. The first 19 cars will be for the Main Street Line, to relieve congestion; the existing trains will remain in service.
  • The company that will operate the new lines is Veolia Transportation, a French company formerly known as Connex. They operate transit on 5 continents, including light rail in France, Ireland, Spain, and Norway and buses in Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, and Sacramento. METRO will set service levels and fares and handle marketing, just as it does now for those METRO bus routes operated by First Transit. My understanding is that the new contract will include operation of the Main Street Line as well as the new lines.
  • METRO said that it maintains a good credit rating (thanks to its sales tax revenues) and that it does not anticipate problems with financing.

This is a major step forward. But, as I said at the meeting, light rail is about the details. Urban light rail is all about the details. And those details are now in the hands of METRO and Parsons. There’s a lot to watch over the next few years.


(more: METRO blog, Chronicle)

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