The Big U.S. Transportation Infrastructure Projects to Watch in 2016

From New York’s Second Avenue subway to Cleveland’s Public Square to L.A.’s light-rail line.

Cranes work at Hudson Yards construction site in New York on Nov. 23.
AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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Eric Jaffe, Citylab
Dec. 23, 2015, noon

In­fra­struc­ture fans across the U.S. had plenty to en­joy in 2015. New York got its first new sub­way sta­tion in a quarter-cen­tury, Port­land, Ore­gon, gave the U.S. a ma­jor bridge that bans cars, Hou­s­ton showed how to re­ima­gine a bus sys­tem for the 21st cen­tury—all of it punc­tu­ated by the pas­sage of the first long-term fed­er­al high­way bill in about a dec­ade. That’s a tough list to top, but 2016 will give it a run for its tax­pay­er money.

Here are some of the key city trans­port­a­tion pro­jects to keep an eye on in the com­ing year.

Sub­way / Metro Rail

It only seems like New York has been build­ing the Second Av­en­ue sub­way line since the Dutch owned Man­hat­tan. First pro­posed about a cen­tury ago, the pro­ject has been un­der­way in earn­est since 2007, when ground broke on Phase I. The wait is nearly over: 2016 is the year when ser­vice on this seg­ment—which con­nects 96th Street to 63rd Street, at a cost of $4.45 bil­lion—will sup­posedly enter ser­vice. Un­less of course it doesn’t. Dur­ing a board meet­ing this month, the MTA re­vealed that the pro­ject car­ries a “mod­er­ate risk of delay” bey­ond the Decem­ber 2016 open­ing, ow­ing to power, sta­tion, and track com­plic­a­tions. And re­gard­less of wheth­er Phase I launches on time, the sub­sequent seg­ments re­main a long, un­fun­ded way off.

Light Rail / Street­car

It only seems like Wash­ing­ton, D.C., has been build­ing the H Street and Ben­ning Road street­car line since the Dutch owned Man­hat­tan. Dur­ing its de­vel­op­ment over the past dec­ade, this pro­ject has suffered nu­mer­ous false starts, not to men­tion a hand­ful of col­li­sions with cars dur­ing test runs. The latest word has ser­vice be­gin­ning in early 2016 fol­low­ing pre-rev­en­ue op­er­a­tions. At this point you have to won­der wheth­er the poorly con­ceived line—the street­cars not only run in mixed traffic but ad­ja­cent to on-street park­ing—is still worth the trouble. After all, the eco­nom­ic be­ne­fits it was sup­posed to de­liv­er to H Street have already ar­rived.

A streetcar is seen traveling along H Street NE in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

A far more crit­ic­al pro­ject from the per­spect­ive of urb­an mo­bil­ity is the open­ing of the second seg­ment of the Expo light-rail line in Los Angeles. Phase II, which ex­tends the route from down­town to Santa Mon­ica at a cost of $1.5 bil­lion, is about to enter fi­nal test­ing, with an ex­pec­ted ser­vice launch in spring 2016. All told, the Expo is ex­pec­ted to carry some 64,000 daily riders by 2030, fol­low­ing the city’s gen­er­al timeline for giv­ing res­id­ents a net­work of reas­on­able non-car travel op­tions by 2035. The Expo line might not have done much for traffic on I-10 so far—thank you, in­duced de­mand—but there’s evid­ence that it has in­deed re­duced car-re­li­ance along the cor­ridor.

Bus-Rap­id Trans­it

Though Chica­go’s Loop Link BRT cor­ridor tech­nic­ally opened to ser­vice this month, its struggles and suc­cesses will be watched closely in 2016. Des­pite the pro­ject’s im­per­fec­tions, which in­clude a lack of sev­er­al top-notch fea­tures of BRT ser­vice, the Loop Link rep­res­ents a sig­ni­fic­ant for­ay in­to bet­ter buses by a ma­jor U.S. metro. In the com­ing year, the line will test out pre­paid board­ing, get a ded­ic­ated lane along Canal Street, and serve a new bus hub be­side Uni­on Sta­tion. Ped­es­tri­ans and cyc­lists will also be­ne­fit from short­er cross­ings and pro­tec­ted lanes. If Chica­go falls in love with the Loop Link in 2016, not only does the city it­self have a bet­ter chance to re­vive its grander BRT scheme, but all big U.S. cit­ies will have a bus blue­print to build on.

In­ter­city Rail

Hopes for a much-needed new Hud­son River rail tun­nel con­nect­ing New York and New Jer­sey, left for dead after New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie can­celled the ARC pro­ject in 2010, got new life this year with ser­i­ous pro­gress on the latest in­carn­a­tion, known as the Gate­way pro­ject. After some squab­bling over fin­an­cial re­spons­ib­il­ity, of­fi­cials from Amtrak as well as both key states agreed to split the tun­nel cost, cur­rently tabbed at $20 bil­lion.

Gate­way won’t be done for many years (some es­tim­ates say 2025), but it’s crit­ic­al for the pro­ject to main­tain its mo­mentum in 2016. That’s be­cause the “clock is tick­ing” on the ex­ist­ing tun­nel, so badly dam­aged dur­ing Su­per­storm Sandy that Amtrak has said it will even­tu­ally need to shut down for re­pairs—a fright­en­ing pro­spect for the North­east that Sen. Chuck Schu­mer calls “trans­port­a­tion Armaged­don.”

In a re­lated pro­ject worth watch­ing, the first phase of Moyni­han Sta­tion, which ex­pands the Amtrak con­course of the cur­rent Penn Sta­tion, is sched­uled to open in 2016. In an un­re­lated pro­ject also worth watch­ing, the privately fun­ded All Aboard Flor­ida pas­sen­ger rail line link­ing Miami and Or­lando should make sig­ni­fic­ant ad­vances as it pre­pares to enter ser­vice in 2017.

High­ways and Bridges

The tear­down and re­place­ment of Seattle’s Alaskan Way Via­duct, an el­ev­ated high­way that cuts off the city from its wa­ter­front, will get a big boost in 2016 with the re­turn of Ber­tha—the gi­gant­ic tun­nel-bor­ing ma­chine dig­ging State Route 99 be­low the city. Out of com­mis­sion since late 2013, Ber­tha will re­portedly get go­ing again in the fi­nal days of 2015 (when, it’s worth not­ing, the four-lane tun­nel was ori­gin­ally sup­posed to open). The up­com­ing year will also see loc­als vote on wheth­er or not they want to keep part of the via­duct in place as an el­ev­ated park or push for­ward with the multi-part, bil­lion-dol­lar wa­ter­front trans­form­a­tion plan favored by the city.

Mean­while the first span of the new Tap­pan Zee Bridge—of­fi­cially the New NY Bridge—is sup­posed to open in 2016. The $4 bil­lion pro­ject will be merely “mass-trans­it ready,” as op­posed to equipped with ded­ic­ated bus lanes, but like so many new U.S. bridges it at least will have a sig­ni­fic­ant ped­es­tri­an and cyc­list com­pon­ent.

Street Design

The dra­mat­ic trans­form­a­tion of Clev­e­land’s Pub­lic Square is on frantic pace for com­ple­tion by sum­mer 2016—just in time for the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Con­ven­tion. That’s a bit of an odd con­ver­gence, con­sid­er­ing that con­ser­vat­ives aren’t typ­ic­ally great fans of city street pro­jects that pri­or­it­ize ped­es­tri­ans over cars. And the new Pub­lic Square, de­signed by James Corner of High Line fame, will do just that: turn a former traffic hub in­to a walk­able plaza sur­roun­ded by green­ery and largely cut off to through-traffic. But long after Don­ald Trump and friends leave town, the square will be a selling point for the city’s newly re­vived down­town.

Freight

The enorm­ous Panama Canal ex­pan­sion is sched­uled for com­ple­tion in April 2016, a little more than a cen­tury after the open­ing of the ori­gin­al. The $5.3 bil­lion widen­ing—already 95 per­cent done—will have a ma­jor ripple ef­fect on Amer­ic­an ship­ping. As Dan Glass re­por­ted last year for CityLab’s Fu­ture of Trans­port­a­tion series, ports in Sa­van­nah, New York, Char­le­ston, Miami, and bey­ond are in­vest­ing bil­lions to ac­com­mod­ate the su­per-sized ships ex­pec­ted in the fu­ture. The new canal will fit ves­sels cap­able of car­ry­ing up to 13,000 TEUs (a cargo di­men­sion short for Twenty-Foot Equi­val­ent Units), more than double the ex­ist­ing 5,000 TEU lim­it. And once the ex­pan­sion is done, canal of­fi­cials are already eye­ing a $17 bil­lion en­core.

Air­ports

In 2014, Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden fam­ously called La­Guardia Air­port“third world” piece of in­fra­struc­ture un­be­fit­ting of Amer­ica’s first city, and this sum­mer New York Gov. An­drew Cuomo an­nounced a plan to do something about it. The pro­posed La­Guardia renov­a­tion has loc­al trans­it ad­voc­ates miffed that Cuomo, long re­luct­ant to make sub­way in­vest­ments, would rather spend money on tour­ists than res­id­ents. But if ap­proved, the $4 bil­lion over­haul—half fin­anced with private money—could re­portedly break ground as soon as mid-2016 (though its com­ple­tion re­mains tracked for 2021).

Vice President Joe Biden addresses the Association for a Better New York luncheon, in New York on July 27. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a plan to redesign and rebuild New York City's LaGuardia airport. The airport in Queens is one of the busiest in the nation, but is cramped and outdated. Biden last year dubbed it a "Third World country." AP Photo/Richard Drew

Wheth­er or not La­Guardia’s face-lift moves for­ward, dozens of air­ports across the U.S. stand to get a touch of mod­ern­iz­a­tion in 2016. As part of its am­bi­tious Nex­t­Gen tech­no­logy up­grade, the Fed­er­al Avi­ation Ad­min­is­tra­tion plans to de­ploy new data-com­mu­nic­a­tions equip­ment at 56 air­port towers by the end of next year. The “Data Comm” up­grade will en­able air-traffic con­trol­lers and pi­lots to com­mu­nic­ate via di­git­al mes­sages rather than re­ly­ing on tra­di­tion­al ra­di­os—a change that FAA says will re­duce mis­com­mu­nic­a­tions, help planes avoid bad weath­er, and gen­er­ally save trav­el­ers time.

Quick­er, safer, more com­fort­able trips: Isn’t that what bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture is all about?

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