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America's Rail Revival

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  • Ronald Dawson
    From http://www.utne.com/bTechnology.tmpl?command=search&db=dArticle.db&eqheadlin edata=America%27s%20Rail%20Revival Dawson Feb 24, 2001 Search Utne.com
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 24, 2001
      edata=America%27s%20Rail%20Revival Dawson

      Feb 24, 2001
      Search Utne.com

      America's Rail Revival
      Commuters coast-to-coast climb aboard new train systems
      By Jay Walljasper, Utne Reader

      Public transportation in America is often dismissed as a nostalgia trip.
      Several generations of Americans have voted with their foot pedals, we are
      often told, making cars the only sensible way to get around.

      Yet worsening traffic congestion and climbing gasoline prices are now
      encouraging many people to give transit another try. Progress, the
      newsletter of the Surface Transportation Policy Project, reports (Nov. 2000)
      that public transportation ridership jumped from 7.9 billion in 1996 to 9.1
      billion in 1999, a 15 percent increase—nearly double the 7.8 percent
      increase in automobile miles driven over the same period.

      And public transportation now means more than buses in many cities from
      coast-to-coast. Light rail, a technologically updated version of the
      streetcar, has been introduced over the past 20 years in Denver, Dallas, St.
      Louis, Portland, Sacramento, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, San Jose, San
      Diego, Buffalo, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Edmonton, Calgary, and most recently
      between Bergen and Hudson in northern New Jersey. Meanwhile Phoenix,
      Memphis, Minneapolis, Little Rock, Charlotte, and Vancouver are now
      constructing light rail lines. Even Kenosha, Wisconsin, (population: 80,000)
      launched a new two-mile streetcar line last summer.

      But the light rail boom has sparked strong criticism from some quarters.
      Many conservatives continue to harp, as they have for the past 50 years,
      that public transit is a waste of money. They’ve recently been joined by a
      small number of progressives complaining that fancy rail projects siphon
      away funds from bus service in low-income neighborhoods. This was certainly
      the case in Los Angeles, where massive cost overruns on subway construction
      led to cuts in bus routes. But in most communities, the arrival of a train
      boosts overall transit service. Commuters who forsake their cars to ride the
      train end up taking the bus more often too, and they press public officials
      for better service. Salt Lake City, for instance, saw a 21 percent rise in
      bus ridership during the same period its light rail line opened.

      While critics on both right and left come armed with economic studies
      showing buses to be more cost-effective, they ignore light rail’s proven
      record of luring motorists out of their cars with a smoother ride, the
      absence of diesel fumes, and a separate right-of-way, which means rail cars
      don’t get bogged down in traffic like buses. The new southwest line in
      Denver carries six times as many passengers as express bus service that once
      covered the same route, notes Rail magazine (Winter 2000). It’s telling that
      almost all cities that have built light rail lines—with the exception of
      economically strapped Buffalo and Baltimore are constructing or planning

      Some rail opponents tout busways—rail lines without tracks—as a lower-cost
      alternative. This idea was conceived in the eco-friendly Brazilian city of
      Curitiba and busways have been built in Ottawa, Ontario, and Pittsburgh. But
      Scott Bogren, communications director of the national transit advocacy group
      Community Transportation Association of America, says busways make sense in
      some situations, but generally don’t save as much money as promised or spur
      the same kind of urban revitalization as light rail.

      While buses will remain the heart of public transportation in most American
      cities, and busways may show potential in some situations, it’s clear that
      light rail enjoys a clear record of success in transforming public transit
      into something more than just mobility of the last resort. As G.B.
      Arrington, former director of strategic planning for the transit authority
      in Portland, (which is now building two new light rail lines) says, "This is
      not just a transit system for the poor, the elderly, and people with DWIs."

      -- Jay Walljasper
      From Utne Reader
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