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Lowell - February 2016
   

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Lowell — Trolley Expansion Cancellation

February 2016

The following statement is the Lowell City Manager's report to the City Council on the decision to terminate the 16-year planning effort to extend the Lowell National Historical Park's trolley system:

The City of Lowell, in cooperation with partners including the Lowell National Historical Park, Lowell Regional Transit Authority, Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, Seashore Trolley Museum, University of Massachusetts Lowell, and other community partners, has pursued for the last decade a new light rail heritage transit system to service the City’s congested downtown urban core. The proposed transit system would use the Lowell National Historical Park’s existing 1.5-mile trolley system as the starting point for a new light rail system, more commonly known as a streetcar. The proposed system would provide direct public access to the City’s Gallagher Intermodal Transportation Terminal, downtown commercial sites, cultural and recreational attractions, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell campus centers.

The proposed transit improvements were intended to mitigate the transportation problems experienced in the City of Lowell resulting from a lack of connectivity between major activity centers, limited roadway capacity, limited parking and high demand at peak times. The potential benefits of the system often focus on a connection to Gallagher Terminal where approximately 3,240 commuters board the commuter rail daily, with direct rail access to downtown Boston in 40 minutes. The Gallagher Terminal also serves as the hub for 19 bus routes serving the greater Lowell region operated by the Lowell Regional Transit Authority (LRTA).

In 2011, the City applied for a Sarbannes grant through the Federal Highway Administration for final design and construction. The City was notified of the $1.5M grant award in 2012. Partners formed the Trolley Working Group that met bimonthly to discuss the opportunities and challenges inherent in the trolley expansion project. The Trolley Working Group was tasked with identifying exactly how these grant funds were to be used for the Federal Transit Authority. It was at this point, moving from the conceptual stage to the implementation stage while finalizing the scope of work, that the Trolley Working Group began to realize just how many complex outstanding issues needed to be addressed.

These outstanding issues would become the basis of the scope of work for an Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Study, and if the system was determined to be viable, the preliminary engineering would begin. The O&M study was needed in order for project partners to make an informed decision about the viability of the trolley expansion project. The study would answer critical questions about budget, operational scheduling and procedures, interface with traffic and other transit issues. The study would essentially serve as a business plan for the project; how to operate and run the trolley system to meet the performance needs of all partners. The feasibility of implementing a trolley system that would meet the needs of all partners, and serve as a method of transit for residents within the city became difficult for the partners to envision.

It was not until 2015 that the Sarbannes grant funds actually became available through a cooperative agreement with LRTA. At this point in time, partners were questioning whether their vision for implementing a trolley system in Lowell was a realistic goal. In addition to questions of ridership and performance, the construction cost estimates ballooned to over $100M. In addition, and more difficult to overcome, the system has a price tag of over $3M annually to operate. The costs, coupled with the fact that none of the partners had the capacity to run the system became a harsh reality.

After many months of very careful consideration and deliberation, partners met in January 2016 to determine how best to proceed with the long proposed project. At the conclusion of the meeting, it was determined that spending $1.5M on the O&M Study was not a prudent decision, and that in reality what the City and partner agencies really needed was a study of multi-modal transportation to address challenges in our existing system. A subsequent meeting was held with Congresswoman Niki Tsongas to discuss our position on the project, and propose a course of action.

Partners agreed that the Sarbannes funding should be reprogrammed to study a multi-modal system, and provided the following statements:

• Lowell National Historical Park favors exploring ways to meet the intent of the streetcar system through a multimodal transportation approach that would include improvements to streets, sidewalks, bicycle, and bus/shuttle infrastructure.

• Lowell Regional Transit Authority (LRTA) is concerned about delivering the level of service needed to meet the partners’ demands at the current cost. The LRTA explained, “The LRTA would like to move forward with its
partners UML, NPS and the City on a more realistic approach to improving the infrastructure and transportation network within the city of Lowell. This approach would build on the existing strengths of each partner and identifies a multi-modal approach and plan for the future.”

• UMass Lowell agreed that a streetcar project could hold potential for the University, but also acknowledged, “…in order for them to serve the campus needs, the route and service assumptions would need to be altered considerably from all proposals that have been presented to date.” In addition, new transportation improvements in the city and to UML’s bus service “…raise the bar considerably for the level of service that an expanded streetcar system would have to exceed in order to justify [UML] investment in subsidizing it.”

• City Manager Kevin Murphy agrees, “Although disappointing, the realization that that the trolley system is not viable at this time will allow partner agencies to focus on multi-modal transportation and challenges in our existing transit system. Reprogramming the federal funds to study these challenges and find solutions to meet the needs of all partners is the right thing to do."

In conclusion, many partners within and from outside the city of Lowell have worked hard for many years to develop the ever-intriguing concept of the streetcar system. However, the project today, especially the operations management and financial plan, are too tenuous to move forward at this time.

The project partners remain committed to relieving traffic congestion on city streets, increasing available parking, creating new economic development opportunities and enhancing the city residents’ quality of life. In pursuit of these goals, the project partners, along with Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, are reaching out to the Federal Transit Administration to propose a change of scope to the City’s $1.5 million grant. The new project will address multi-modal connections to Gallagher Terminal that dovetail with the City’s current projects at South Common and reconstruction of the Lord Overpass.

 
   

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