Cars may have breathed life into the nation’s transportation system, but they also sounded a death knell for most of the country’s electric-powered streetcars and interurban lines. Today, ironically, many cities that seek relief for their car-jammed streets are making tracks back to an old friend: light rail.
Light rail systems operate over 542 miles of track in 19 U.S. cities, some of which opened new lines or extensions this year. Additionally, 190 other cities are either currently constructing or have plans to build light rail lines in their communities. The popular transportation mode is filling a niche in growing communities that are seeking to reduce traffic congestion, diversify their transportation options and support economic development.
A remedy for congested roads
Light rail is popular in large part because it is flexible. However, there is some confusion about what constitutes light rail. “Light rail is a term that can mean a lot of things to a lot of people,” says Bill Millar, president of the Washington, D.C.-based American Public Transportation Association (APTA). “It’s a term that people use as if they knew what they were talking about.”
Generally, today’s light rail systems feature steel-wheeled rail cars that are electrically powered by overhead cables and that run on tracks above ground. The name comes from the weight of the rails on which the cars run as compared to heavy rails, which weigh more and can carry more weight. In densely populated urban areas, light rail lines may be situated in roadways so they travel alongside automobile traffic. However, in such cases, the rail cars have traffic signal priority so they can pass through intersections unimpeded, speeding passengers through traffic.
Because light rail can be designed in many different ways, cities can use it to meet a variety of goals, but relieving congestion is the primary reason most turn to light rail. To reduce congestion on the highly traveled corridor between Los Angeles and Pasadena, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) opened an $880 million, 13.7-mile light rail line in July. The Gold Line is the third light rail line to open in the Los Angeles metropolitan area since 1990, and it replaces bus service that previously was the only public transportation option for travelers between the two cities. Now, local bus routes feed travelers to the Gold Line’s stations, where commuters can transfer to the light rail and ride into downtown.
The transit agency created the Gold Line to increase capacity in the corridor without building more roads or adding more buses to already congested roads. “There are people who think you ought to put all your money into buses or build more freeways,” says Ed Scannell, spokesperson for Los Angeles County MTA. “We’re at a point in Los Angeles County where we can’t build any more freeways. There are areas in this county where we run buses every 90 seconds, and we’re getting to the point where we’re going to put in articulated buses. But when we get to the point where those buses are full, and we’re running every 90 seconds, [we] have to find a way to increase capacity, and then light rail becomes the mode of choice.”
Sacramento, Calif., officials also turned to light rail to reduce traffic congestion in a rapidly growing corridor south of the city. The city opened a $222 million, 6.3-mile extension to its 27-mile light rail system in September to carry commuters from neighborhoods south of the city into downtown Sacramento. “The extension is in one of the fastest growing corridors in the area,” says Beverly Scott, general manager for Sacramento Regional Transit District. “We’re the sixth worst [metro area] in terms of air quality in the country. Good transit is not a luxury; it’s a necessity, and the reason is because of the tremendous growth coupled with the air-quality problems.”
Sacramento currently is constructing another 10.9 miles of light rail to connect Folsom with the city by 2005. “In every major corridor, the congestion is unbelievable,” Scott says. “When you see people able to shave 20 minutes off a daily trip, able to make connections and go places that either they could not go before or could not as conveniently go before and able to do that safely and affordably, that’s what [light rail is] all about.”
Salt Lake City’s geography compounds its growing traffic congestion. Situated in the middle of the Wasatch Mountains, Salt Lake City lies 40 miles from Ogden to the north and 40 miles from Provo to the south. Eighty percent of the state’s population resides in those 80 miles, and the mountains create a barrier to road expansion in the metropolitan region. “The opportunity to add roads just is not there,” says Andrea Packer, public relations and marketing manager for the Utah Transit Authority (UTA). “We rebuilt I-15 in Salt Lake County five years ago, which was long overdue, but everybody knew going in that it wasn’t going to be enough.”
The first leg of Salt Lake’s 19-mile light rail system, known as TRAX, opened in 1999, and a 2.5-mile extension to the University of Utah opened in 2002 in time for the Winter Olympics. This September, UTA opened an $89.4 million, 1.5-mile extension to the University line. The extension runs through the campus of the University of Utah, ending at the University Medical Center, which employs more than 14,000 people. “When light rail first launched, people thought we would be stealing bus ridership that we’ve had for years in the area,” says Marti Money, public relations specialist for UTA. “While there was a little bit of borrowing from that ridership, we were finding that we had new ridership [on light rail.] We can’t get enough cars on the line to provide for all the people who want to ride, and that’s one of the best problems we could ever have.”
A multi-modal mix
Likewise, in Dallas, where stereotypes abound about car-loving residents and where traffic congestion is notorious, the city has found that its light rail line attracts high ridership. The light rail line provides an alternative transportation option to commuters who want to bypass automobile traffic on the city’s highways. “We knew we had to develop a competitive system that was of pretty high quality and that did what people wanted it to do, was clean, convenient, safe, fast and went to the right places,” says Doug Allen, executive vice president for program development for Dallas Area Rapid Transit. “If you can develop a good product, people will choose to use it. There are still people that drive, but we feel that we’ve provided a quality alternative for them to consider, and a lot of them are choosing to take advantage of [it].”
Dallas opened its first 20 miles of light rail in 1996 and, since then, has expanded the system to include 43 miles of light rail. The light rail system complements a range of public transportation options in the city, including buses, streetcars and commuter rail transit. “Mobility, especially in urban areas, has to come from more than just highways,” Allen says. “We believe in a balanced transportation system. Buses and light rail help with congestion by taking away cars when it is most congested.”
Houston also is trying to diversify the transportation options in the city by constructing a $324 million, 7.5-mile light rail line downtown. Currently, the city only offers buses as a public transportation option, and it has built an extensive system of high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes to encourage commuters to carpool.
The light rail line will open Jan. 1, just in time for the Super Bowl on Feb. 1 at Reliant Park, which is at one end of the line. “We looked at whether it made sense to have more buses, do nothing or go with more HOVs,” says Shirley DeLibero, president and CEO for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas (Metro). “The studies clearly showed that we needed to have a multi-modal system. If we [didn’t] have an alternate mode of transportation, we [would] never survive because [we] can’t keep laying concrete all over the city. [We would] definitely lose [our] quality of life.”
Even before the rail cars started operating, voters approved a $7.5 billion regional transit plan in November that will allow Metro to issue $640 million in bonds to expand the light rail system by 22 miles. The plan also calls for the agency to add 44 new bus routes, build nine new park-and-ride lots and construct 250 more miles of high-occupancy vehicle lanes on highways. “We have stressed that light rail is not a panacea,” DeLibero says. “We’ll also have toll roads, highways and HOV lanes, and I think the combination of all those entities is what’s going to help this region grow.”
A magnet for development
Besides diversifying the transportation options in Houston, the light rail line is helping persuade developers to construct new buildings downtown. “The downtown urban area was really horrible,” DeLibero says. “Now, with the light rail down there, [you can] see the development that’s occurring — the clubs and the restaurants that have moved into the area. The rail is creating density.”
Houston’s experience is not unusual. The ability of light rail to attract development is one of the reasons so many communities are building lines. “Communities are starting to realize that they get a true economic return when they invest in things like light rail,” Millar says. “Light rail investment tends to cause land value to rise near the stations.”
The effects that light rail lines can have in spurring economic development can be seen in several cities. Dallas, for example, has attracted nearly $1.3 billion worth of mixed-use developments near its light rail stations since it opened its first 20 miles in 1996. “We have this rail system that’s the equivalent capacity of a six-lane freeway, and it’s very environmentally sensitive and quiet, yet it moves a lot of people right where they want to go,” Allen says. “From a developer’s standpoint, that’s really marketable. That’s changing the face of Dallas, at least in the station areas.”
Seeing the economic impact light rail can have on communities, Dallas has expanded light rail into areas that are not densely populated and has worked with neighboring jurisdictions to encourage development around those stations. “We’ve gone to places that are essentially open fields, and, since then, hotels and performing arts buildings and office buildings have developed,” Allen says. “We like to locate stations in areas that can foster that kind of development, which is good for our member cities because they are interested in the new development and the tax base.”
The economic development benefits of light rail appealed to Tacoma, Wash., officials and residents who decided to support a regional sales tax in 1996 to fund construction of light rail through their downtown. A few years earlier, that suggestion would have been the epitome of wasteful spending in a downtown that was desolate and run down. However, the city began revitalizing its downtown in the mid-1990s and attracted restaurants, retail stores, entertainment attractions, museums and a satellite campus for the University of Washington.
To complement and support the revamped downtown, residents wanted light rail to connect the center of the city with a transit hub on the edge of town that features Amtrak, Greyhound, express bus, commuter rail and regional bus service. The $80.4 million, 1.6-mile line with five stations opened Aug. 22, and is free to passengers. “Before light rail came along, there was already a renaissance of restaurants and retail businesses cropping up in the downtown core, and light rail is reinforcing that,” says Geoff Patrick, spokesperson for Seattle-based Sound Transit, which built and operates the Tacoma Link light rail line.
As cities evaluate their transportation problems and search for solutions, more and more are finding that light rail can play a number of roles in the community. “[Light rail is] something that’s being considered as a matter of routine in many cities,” Millar says. “People are coming to realize that you need good highways, you need good bridges, but you also need very good transit systems, and one of the ways to improve your transit system is to invest in light rail.”