The North American light rail transit (LRT) renaissance began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, starting with Edmonton in 1978 and followed by Calgary and San Diego. More than 40 years later, LRT remains the most appealing mode of new public transportation for many North American cities.
Billions of dollars of local, state and federal funding has been spent, and development continues today with 129 miles of lines under construction in cities across North America representing an investment of more than $28 billion. A further 126.5 route-miles is anticipated to enter construction over the next year at a cost of more than $15 billion, according to data from IRJ Pro.
Growth has partly been driven by a desire to revive streetcars, which largely disappeared by the 1950s, having been replaced by diesel buses. LRT, a relatively affordable way to bring rail transit to many cities, can fill the niche between buses and rapid transit (subway) systems, which are highly expensive and complex to implement. LRT has received significant federal funding and has successfully driven investment in transit-oriented development in many cities.
Many projects in Canada have struggled to attract federal funding, meaning cities have been forced to recover a much higher share of their capital costs through revenue. The capital-intensive nature of LRT in Canada may go some way in explaining why there are aren’t that many systems currently in operation, while in the U.S. there are currently 51 operational LRTs as of November 2018, with a much broader spectrum of systems across mid- to large-sized cities.
The North American LRT market is expanding, as displayed in Figure 1. While other markets such as Europe and Asia have seen a contraction in the number of projects planned in 2019, the number of projects in North America has more than doubled.