Tempe explores use of streetcar without overhead wires - East Valley Tribune: Tempe

Tempe explores use of streetcar without overhead wires

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Posted: Thursday, April 7, 2011 2:18 pm | Updated: 4:34 pm, Thu Nov 3, 2011.

A planned streetcar on Tempe’s Mill Avenue could be one of the first hybrid systems in the nation, allowing it to operate without overhead wires.

The Metro transit agency and Tempe are exploring the new technology for a 2.5-mile system set to open in 2016. If the option works as well as the manufacturer’s claims, it would spare Tempe from what some consider to be unsightly wires and shave millions in construction costs. The vehicle can travel 5 miles without getting power from a cable, which in theory could allow the entire system to be built without catenary wires. But Metro officials so far are only considering going cable-free on a loop through downtown.

“From the aesthetic standpoint, it’s a lovely concept to have a vehicle that has the ability to run without power lines for some distance,” said Jyme Sue McLaren, Tempe’s deputy public works director. “It allows us a level of flexibility downtown.”

Metro officials traveled to a demonstration of the hybrid streetcar in Charlotte, N.C., to investigate because they also like the idea of eliminating some sections of wires. The streetcar is manufactured by Kinkisharyo, which says the vehicles can travel 5 miles on lithium ion batteries. The batteries also are charged by energy generated from braking, just as in hybrid cars.

Kinkisharyo is working on the concept of an entire system that has no cables, said Rainer Hombach, vice president and general manager.

If the system were built with no cables downtown, the streetcars would charge their batteries for that section while traveling through the portion with wires. In a cable-free system, the cars would need to stop at a charging station for 6 to 8 minutes to get enough power to complete the route.

Kinkisharyo estimates Metro would save $6 million per mile in construction costs by foregoing overhead wires, as well as ongoing maintenance costs. Hombach figured savings would total $45 million in 30 years.

“Really what you’re doing is getting your fleet of cars for free,” he said.

Metro would buy at least five cars. Traditional streetcars cost $3.5 million each, though Kinkisharyo hasn’t determined hybrid production costs yet. The technology will cost more, as is the case with cars.

Metro CEO Steve Banta said a major consideration the agency has to weigh is how the batteries would stand up to the massive power draws from the kind of air-conditioning units needed in the Valley.

“Our air-conditioning system would be much larger than the A/C system they were proposing on the initial cars,” Banta said.

But Hombach insisted that wouldn’t be an issue.

Kinkisharyo has taken a prototype streetcar to some U.S. cities that are on the market for streetcars. Metro has asked the manufacturer to send it to Phoenix this fall so transit officials can inspect it firsthand, and Hombach said the company will consider a demonstration here.

Metro likely will need to order streetcars in 2012 for its $160 million Tempe system. Metro wants to know more about the initial and long-term costs of the hybrid system before choosing a manufacturer, Banta said.

“I think their production costs today is still unknown, which is one of the things we need to talk to them about: What would this vehicle cost?” Banta said.

Metro will have the most say in choosing which streetcars are purchased, with input from Tempe. One factor in Kinkisharyo’s favor is that Metro’s existing 50 light-rail vehicles were built by the Japanese company. Kinkisharyo also has a maintenance contract with the transit agency.

Metro plans to begin the 2.5-mile streetcar line in 2013, laying tracks along Mill from Southern Avenue to Rio Salado Parkway. A loop would take it to Ash Avenue and return to Mill via University Drive.

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6548 or ggroff@evtrib.com

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