Feb 24, 2001
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 increasenearly 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. Theyve 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 rails 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
dont 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). Its telling that
almost all cities that have built light rail lineswith the exception of
economically strapped Buffalo and Baltimore are constructing or planning
Some rail opponents tout buswaysrail lines without tracksas 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 dont 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, its 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