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How Light Rail Can Benefit the Community
Rail transit is being fiercely debated in the Charlotte, North Carolina urban area as the region approaches a Nov. 6th vote over continuing financial support for its transit system. This is an expanded version of an op-ed commentary originally published in the Charlotte Observer on 21 October 2007 with the title "Why cities embrace light rail". Lyndon Henry, a data analyst for Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Austin, Texas, is also a technical consultant to the Light Rail Now Project.
Fusillades of claims and counter-claims are flying in Charlotte's current debate over funding its transit system. "I'm swimming in numbers!" the Observer's Mary Schulken complained in a recent column.
While "numbers games" are being used to sow confusion, unfortunately, establishing truth often depends on numerical data. I'll try to cite key sources and leave it to intelligent readers to decide what's credible for themselves.
1. In developing rail transit, Charlotte is definitely "riding a wave." Over the past four decades, the number of cities with rail transit has nearly quadrupled, from nine to 34 – plus three more cities (Phoenix, Austin, Tucson) that have new voter-approved rail projects under way.
And, in early October, Norfolk's new 7.4-mile light rail project was okayed for federal funding. All this would hardly be happening if rail transit were the hopeless failure that critics portray.
Norfolk, Virginia is proceeding to install its first modern light rail transit system, a 7.4-mile line routed mostly on former railroad right-of-way.
2. In both population and density, Charlotte is well within the "ballpark" of New Start rail cities like Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Austin, Tampa, Little Rock, Nashville, and Albuquerque. (See table below.)
3. Cities are embracing rail in part because people understand that, if you get motorists off crowded roadways and into trains, you're going to give some congestion relief. Rail won't make congestion disappear – nothing will, really – but it will speed mobility in congested corridors and slow the overall growth of congestion. For detailed data, see the Light Rail Now section on Mobility Congestion: http://www.lightrailnow.org/industry_issues.htm#mobility-congestion
Traffic congestion certainly won't disappear, but Charlotte's Lynx LRT system will provide significant mobility congestion relief by attracting many motorists off crowded streets and freeways, especially in peak hours.
4. Rail transit is also significantly safer - light rail's injury and fatality rate is about 1.6 times less than
that of motor vehicles. See the Light Rail Now article US Rail Transit Excels in Safety:
5. The twin crises of diminishing oil resources plus Global Warming mean higher fuel prices and other problems – which electric rail can certainly mitigate. Electric light rail has about 40% of the carbon-emitting energy intensity of an automobile and 45% of a bus. See: Urban Transportation Carbon-Emitting Energy intensity – Major Modes in the Light Rail Now article Transport Energy Debate: How Many BTUs on the Head of a Pin? ...er...Power Line? (http://www.lightrailnow.org/facts/fa_lrt_2007-08a.htm.)
6. Light rail may well save money for many Charlotte commuters, as automobile operating costs (including steadily higher fuel prices) are avoided, plus the cost of parking, plus the cost of constructing more road capacity.
7. With unit operating costs lower on average than those of buses, light rail also tends to be a bargain, accommodating growing ridership more economically (by adding more unmanned railcars to trains). See How Light Rail Saves Operating Cost Dollars Compared With Buses (http://www.lightrailnow.org/facts/fa_lrt02.htm). And, even with capital costs included, light rail costs may be lower than those of buses – see "Free" buses vs. "expensive" rail? (http://www.lightrailnow.org/myths/m_mythlog001.htm#STL_20070531)
Study by Light Rail Now Project indicates that, with total capital and operational costs considered, St. Louis's "capital-intensive" LRT ends up costing
approximately 16% less per passenger mile than the transit agency's supposedly "cheap" bus system.
8. It's a myth that new rail services require new bus routes as feeders. Instead, existing services are typically re-routed to interface with the new rail service, increasing ridership on both bus and rail – thus emissions per passenger and per passenger-mile are typically lowered, not increased.
Compared with bus-only systems, new rail systems have resulted in more ridership, more riders per capita, and lower unit costs – see Evaluating New Start Transit Program Performance: Comparing Rail And Bus.
9. Unfortunately, all the fusillades of data in the world can't adequately convey the urbanity, livability, and ease of mobility that rail transit imparts to a city. For that, my "citation" would be your own personal visit to a city like Portland, San Francisco, or Toronto, so you can experience it for yourself!
Portland – Downtown visitors enjoy drinks at a sidewalk cafe as MAX LRT trains pass by on the street.
Light rail has made Portland one of the most attractive, urbane, and livable cities in the USA.
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