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.

Image MTA / Flickr
Construction workers in New York make progress at the Second Avenue subway's 86th Street cavern in late 2013. (MTA / Flickr)

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 D.C. Streetcar squeezes by a parked car during a test run in November 2015. (mariordo59 / Flickr)

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 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 a crisp $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 Senator Chuck Schumer calls “transportation Armageddon.”

A rendering shows Chicago’s new Loop Link BRT line, which officially opened in December 2015. (City of Chicago)

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.

An aerial rendering shows the new design for Cleveland’s Public Square. (James Corner Field Operations)

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, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden famously called LaGuardia Airport a “third world” piece of infrastructure unbefitting of America’s first city, and this summer New York Governor 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).

Joe Biden (gleefully) discusses a proposed upgrade to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, which he once called a “third world” facility, in July 2015. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Whether or not LaGuardia’s facelift 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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