Memo from HDR Engineering, Inc.
Project: Columbus Streetcar
Date: April 26, 2008
Re: Streetcar construction impacts
You asked about the impact of streetcar construction on businesses along the alignment and on maintaining traffic flow during construction.
This is a serious concern: major construction projects in a busy downtown environment can have large impacts on “life at street level,” affecting the conduct of everyday business for thousands of workers, visitors and residents. Transit projects, since they are most often located in the street right-of-way, can be particularly disruptive. The Euclid Corridor bus rapid transit project in downtown Cleveland was a recent example of these issues. Light rail projects have similar issues: typical construction involves major excavation (three feet, typically), moving a lot of utility lines, and an area of construction that extends at least curb-to-curb and sometimes building face-to-building face. The duration of construction in front of an individual property is usually measured in months. The photo below of recent light rail construction in Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix illustrates these practices
Fortunately, streetcar construction is a different story, in large part due to construction practices that were first used in the construction of the Portland Streetcar and that now have become standard practice in subsequent projects. By using a shallow track slab design, and by confining excavation to a narrow strip, streetcar tracks can be installed in a brief period, typically three of four weeks for each section of track.
The sequence of photos below illustrates this process. First, an eight-food wide strip is saw-cut out of the existing pavement surface. A relatively small amount of utility relocation work is performed. The gravel subgrade is compacted, and the reinforcing mat and rails are laid in place. The long sections of rail were welded into 600-foot sections offsite and pulled into place in the middle of the night. The whole assembly is embedded in concrete and a small amount of repaving work to taper into adjacent travel lanes is done
There are “cascading benefits” from this low-impact approach. Time and cost of construction are reduced. Traffic control is simpler (and also maintained for a shorter period). Impacts on local businesses are minimized.
In addition to these construction practices, good communication with local businesses, building owners and residents is also key. If people know what is going to happen and when, and if the managers of the project make sure that this is what indeed happens, then the people affected by the project are willing to put up with the disruption for the sake of the project’s ultimate benefit. Hiring a good construction contractor is also essential; good “customer service” and problem-solving out on the street avoids a lot of ill will and headaches.
The combined use of these approaches can be a project that is successful both in its ultimate completion and during the disruption of the construction itself. I served as the City of Portland’s Transportation Commissioner during the whole course of construction for Portland’s streetcar line. During this time, I did not receive a single complaint from a business, but I did receive thank-you notes (thank you notes for a public works project!) from merchants who wanted to acknowledge the helpful attitude and reliable information provided by the project’s outreach staff or to note that the construction crew, in a couple of cases, dropped their tools and unloaded someone’s delivery truck.
To sum up, another photo will serve. In the view below, track construction was underway at the intersection of 10th Avenue and West Burnside Street, one of the busiest streets in downtown Portland. The sidewalks are open and mostly free of construction work or clutter. One lane of auto traffic is still open, even while active construction is underway in the other lanes. The large amount of daytime traffic on Burnside continues to flow, over steel plates that will be removed in the middle of the night when that section is paved. The adjacent parking lot is full, and although the on-street parking spaces in the area of construction are temporarily unavailable, they are still available two blocks ahead. No question: this is still major construction, but its impacts have been carefully mitigated.
Thanks to the “pioneering” of these techniques in Portland, Seattle, Little Rock and other cities, Columbus can insist on this level of performance in the construction of its streetcar project, and get it