Streetcar tracks heighten accident concerns here

Cities with rail systems have seen rise in car, cycle crashes and claims
2012-02-19T00:02:00Z 2013-01-25T09:49:53Z Streetcar tracks heighten accident concerns hereRob O'Dell and Rhonda Bodfield Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

In addition to figuring out how to engineer, build and operate a $200 million new modern streetcar through the heart of town, Tucson faces an additional challenge: how to prevent accidents with cars and bicycles.

Experiences from Phoenix, Portland and Seattle show it won't be easy.

Phoenix's new light rail experienced more than 100 accidents with cars and pedestrians in its first three years, causing more than $2.3 million in damages to the light rail and forcing officials to launch a nearly $275,000 public education campaign. The Arizona Daily Star created a database of all 106 Phoenix light-rail crashes at azstarnet.com/databases

Meanwhile in Portland, the bicycle community has ramped up a campaign to get riders to report accidents because hundreds of cyclists have crashed on the tracks, mainly by getting their wheels stuck in the gap between the tracks and the street.

In Seattle, a group of six cyclists filed a class-action lawsuit against the city, saying they crashed on the streetcar tracks and were injured.

Despite the fact only a minuscule portion of Tucson's tracks have been installed, they have already contributed to a fatality - something that hasn't happened in Portland in its 10 years of operation.

Dennis M. McKinney, 47, was riding on East Congress Street near the Fourth Avenue Underpass when he lost control of his bike as it got caught up in the streetcar tracks, according to a police report of the July 2010 incident. He lost control of his vehicle and was struck by a truck in the next lane. He was pronounced dead at University Medical Center.

The city has since undertaken a traffic study of the Congress/Fourth Avenue intersection and cut one lane from East Congress to help prevent bikes from being pushed across the tracks by cars merging to the left to get to Congress or North Toole Avenue.

Tucson officials said they will initiate a public-relations campaign for road safety as the streetcar comes online.

They reject any comparison to the Phoenix light rail, contending they are different systems. The Phoenix light rail is separate from the street, having its own dedicated lane and lights, while Tucson's streetcars will ride in the traffic lanes with cars and use existing lights.

Because the car is in the street, it is more likely to be noticed and not run into, said Shellie Ginn, the city's project manager for the streetcar.

"Comparing light rail and streetcars is comparing apples to oranges," Ginn said. "The fact we have track in the lanes of travel makes it so much more predictable."

Car crashes

Phoenix's light rail has seemingly been a magnet for crashes with cars. There were 53 crashes in 2009, the first full year of operations, which prompted the Metro system to create a public education campaign about the crashes that cost nearly $275,000.

With that driver education, by the second year collisions dropped by more than 50 percent, said spokeswoman Hillary Foose, to 25 crashes. There were 28 crashes in 2011.

The crashes ranged from minimal damage to an accident that cost more than $1.2 million - about half of the total damages - where a car T-boned the light rail at high rate of speed and knocked it off the tracks.

Foose said almost all of the accidents were the result of drivers disobeying the traffic signals that govern the system and crashing into the light rail while making a right or left turn that was prohibited. She doesn't expect Tucson to have the same problems because the streetcar is slower than the light rail, the route is significantly shorter than the 20 mile light-rail system and because the cars will operate in the traffic lanes. She also noted the agency has been successful in recouping some of the cost, since the other drivers were at fault.

Ginn said she does not think drivers will be ducking in and out of lanes of traffic when they find themselves stuck behind a streetcar, because she said the stops will be quick. Instead of the exit and entry from buses, for example, where people line up single file, the wide doors and low floors on the streetcars allow for much quicker unloading, she said.

On a recent trip to Portland, she clocked the stops at less than 30 seconds. "We really think that will eliminate the irritated person behind the wheel waiting for the vehicle to move again," Ginn said.

Portland said it has only had one accident that met the threshold for reporting to the federal government - which requires a fatality, a transport to a hospital or $25,000 worth of damage, said Dan Anderson, a spokesman for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. The city doesn't track fender benders, but there were only two other minor crashes, he said.

However, Seattle's streetcar system has seen several crashes, starting only a week after the system opened in 2007 and continuing through January, when a car smashed into the streetcar on a Sunday morning and knocked it off the tracks.

Bike crashes

Portland's issue is with bikes.

Bike tires can easily be caught in the gap between the street and the rail, and the problem is particularly acute when riders cross over the tracks while their wheels are parallel to them. That's how the fatality on Congress in Tucson occurred.

It's much safer for cyclists to cross the tracks at a 60-90 degree angle.

Anderson said crashes aren't effectively tracked in Portland. "It's not often that they're reported to the police, which is really what we'd need," he said, adding most riders dust themselves off and hop back on again.

But a citizens action group in Portland has launched a website attempting to get a better tally on bicycle crashes. From April 2011 through October, more than 120 crashes were reported to the site.

"The crash thing is real," said Portland transportation blogger Jonathan Maus. It's not good enough to use reporting as an excuse, he said. "They have an obligation to figure out how to keep people from dropping on the tracks."

Maus, 37, said his mother crashed about four years ago on the tracks and split her jaw open. Maus said aside from tires getting stuck in the gap, another problem is that drivers don't like to rumble along on the tracks, and end up edging into the areas where people bike.

"It really just seems that if you're on a bicycle, you just sort of fend for yourself," Maus said.

In Seattle, six people sued after they were injured between May 2007 and June 2009 on the city's streetcar line, including a woman who said she broke her jaw and two teeth and a man who shattered his elbow. Calls seeking comment from Seattle officials were not returned. The case is still pending.

Tucson officials acknowledge there are still some "pinch points" where the bike lane narrows and the bike will have to cross behind the streetcar to go around it when it stops to unload passengers. Still, they've also been able to address some of the concerns where possible, such as making the streetcar stops in the center of the street and putting bike lanes on the opposite side of the streetcar tracks for one-way streets.

Tucson does not have an estimate for how much will need to be budgeted for insurance, liability, and damage from crashes. It is working on it.

Tucson bike concerns

Erik Ryberg, a lawyer and avid cyclist, said the existing tracks on Fourth Avenue are "extremely dangerous," adding "the new tracks should be a little better because they're not quite as deep. But they're not going to be that much better either."

He said the tracks played an enormous role in the death of McKinney, and the Tucson bike community is "really divided" on whether the streetcar will be bad for Tucson cyclists.

Ian Johnson, chairman of the Tucson-Pima County Bicycle Advisory Committee, said he may launch his own website to track crashes. While in general the committee is supportive of the streetcar, he's worried about cars parked on Fourth forcing bikes toward the tracks, especially when doors open, because of the tight lane space.

"I'm worried that once the tracks are down and cyclists are using it, people are going to get hurt a lot. And then there's going to be a reaction."

Coming Monday: The city has no money set aside for emergencies as streetcar construction gets under way and may have to issue debt to cover costs.

On StarNet: To see more about spending on the streetcar project go to azstarnet.com/databases

At a glance

In Phoenix

More than 100 car collisions in three years have caused $2.3 million in damage to the light rail.

In Portland

Bike groups are tracking crashes after hundreds of cyclists have wiped out on the tracks.

In Seattle

Cyclists filed a class-action suit after being injured and several cars have crashed into streetcars.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

After hearing of issues in Phoenix, the Arizona Daily Star requested the reports of the accident from the Phoenix light rail system and the Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa police departments.

The Star organized the accident data and created an online database of all 106 Phoenix light rail accidents.

The database can be found at http://tinyurl.com/lightrailcrashes

ABOUT THE TRACKS

Cyclists had high hopes Tucson's system would use one of two types of European rails for the modern streetcar that have a smaller gap that bike tires can get stuck in.

A type of rail called a "girder rail" with a 1.5-inch gap between the rail and the street, was rejected because it isn't manufactured in the United States and didn't qualify for stimulus funding.

Tucson then settled on "block rail," which also has a 1.5- inch gap and is considered safer for cyclists.

But there were problems. The rail is more expensive, when the city is already lagging in funding to complete the project. In addition, there aren't any domestic manufacturers that can complete the rail in time, also bumping up against federal requirements to buy American. So the city decided to go with "T-Rail" and save about $3.5 million.

"It came down to time and money, neither of which the city wanted to spend more of," said Michael McKisson, owner and publisher of tucsonvelo.com.

McKisson said T-Rail has a larger and more irregular gap of 2.5 inches that is more likely to catch bikes tires and trigger crashes. Many inexperienced cyclists drive beach cruisers or mountain bikes, which wouldn't get caught in the smaller gap of block rail, he said.

In addition, one side of the T-Rail is concrete and tends to chip away over time because of the vibrations of the streetcar, making the gap wider and more jagged over time, he said. The block rail instead uses steel on both sides that won't chip and grow the gap.

The city contends the gap between the two rails is roughly comparable and that it will be sure to maintain the edge of concrete over time.

Contact reporter Rob O'Dell at rodell@azstarnet.com or 807-8465. Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at rbodfield@azstarnet.com or 573-4243.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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