A look at some of the best projects in America's less well-known cities

Earlier this year, Reconnecting America identified 643 transit projects in progress across the country. Many of the larger ones are well-known, like the Second Avenue subway line in Manhattan, or the streetcar system in Washington, D.C., or the Beltline in Atlanta. But big cities aren't the only ones making efforts to improve public transportation. Five of the projects are taking place in cities with populations below 500,000 — from Reno (pop. 220,000) to Aspen (pop. 6,000). Here's a brief look at these developments.

Reno Streetcar (Nevada)

Image courtesy of City of Reno

In late 2009, the city of Reno launched a new bus-rapid transit line (above) on South Virginia Street in the downtown district. The effort proved an immediate success, with ridership rising 10 percent in a matter of months. But BRT was just the first step in a multi-phase plan to improve the city's transit system. The next effort would be the development of a streetcar line in the Virginia Street corridor. The 5-mile line would connect the university, at the northern end of the city, with the convention center, on the southern end, via the downtown district. The streetcar system would be completed in two phases for a total cost of roughly $151 million. How exactly the two systems will work together is unclear: while the Reno Gazette-Journal reported back in 2009 that the streetcar would "replace" the BRT line, other city plans [PDF] suggest the two will coexist, raising the question of whether or not they serve a redundant purpose.

Salinas Commuter Rail (California)

Image courtesy of Transportation Agency for Monterey County

The Caltrain commuter line runs south from San Francisco down through San Jose, eventually stopping in Gilroy. The Salinas commuter rail project will extend that line roughly 38 miles from Gilroy to Salinas via Pajaro and Castroville [map, PDF]. The $110 million expansion will give commuters in the Salinas/Monterey County region better access to job centers in the Bay Area and San Jose hubs. Although more than 30 percent of people in Monterey work in a Bay Area county, according to the project's official alternatives analysis [PDF], only five buses (three for the morning rush, two for the evening) currently serve the route. The Salinas rail will provide an alternative to that insufficient option and limit congestion on U.S. Route 101. Salinas will get a new intermodal transit facility (above). The project is currently undergoing environmental review, and plans call for service to begin in 2016.

West Eugene EmX (Oregon)

Image courtesy of Lane Transit District

In a recent report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the city of Eugene was named one of the five best bus-rapid transit sites in the country. BRT in Eugene has been running since 2007 as the EmX, or Emerald Express, and so far the 4-mile system between that city and Springfield has been a great success: the average speed in the corridor is up 30 percent to 15 miles per hour, and daily ridership has increased 74 percent to 4,700 passengers from the old bus system. The West Eugene EmX extension will continue the route another 4 miles into West Eugene on West 11th Avenue (above) at a cost of $95 million. That's rather high for a BRT line, but opposition to the West Eugene EmX has come not over the pricetag but from businesses who fear a loss of customers when the road is reconfigured for bus priority. This summer a judge threw out an attempt by this group to block the line's development, and current plans call for the expansion to begin operation in 2017.

Fort Collins Bus Rapid Transit (Colorado)

Image courtesy of City of Fort Collins

This $82 million project [PDF] calls for the creation of an impressive bus rapid transit line through the Mason corridor of the city, tying together downtown Fort Collins with Colorado State University. The Mason Express, or MAX system, as it's being called, will use a dedicated busway that parallels the corridor's primary arterial (U.S. Route 287) to avoid congestion. Based largely on the EmX system, the MAX will have signal priority at intersections with other roads and elevated platforms for quick boarding. Construction began in September [PDF] on Mason Street — a one-way street that will be converted into the two-way busway — and plans call for improved bike and pedestrian trails in the corridor as well (above). Service has been delayed but is expected to begin in 2014.

Aspen-Glenwood Springs Bus Rapid Transit (Colorado)

Image courtesy of the Federal Transit Administration

By far the most cost-effective project of the small city bunch, the Aspen BRT line will cover nearly 40 miles at a cost of a little more than $39 million. The unique long-distance system — most BRTs in the United States traverse city centers alone — will connect Aspen with Glenwood Springs [PDF] via five other small communities (above) presently tied to the ski resort city by just a single state highway. While the communities in this Roaring Fork Valley region are small, with populations of only about 5,000 people apiece, a great number of them commute into Aspen to work in the hospital industry [PDF] at the ski mountains. The BRT line won't get a dedicated busway, but it will travel along current HOV lanes and get signal priority at intersections, and the transit commute is expected to save a considerable amount of time [PDF] over driving, as well as sustain the environment in a region whose mountains are its primary attraction. Plans are 90 percent complete, and the system is supposed to debut in 2013.

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