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Railroaded

Wendell Cox makes his living being the bad guy in debates over light rail transit (LRT). Judging from his performance at the Doubletree Park Place Hotel in St. Louis Park one morning late in May, he is a man who enjoys his work.

Cox swaggered up to the podium that morning sporting a tight, malevolent smile and a head full of troublesome facts. For more than an hour, he had sat impassively as a trio of presenters regaled the audience with good news about a $400 million LRT line to be built on Hiawatha Avenue from the Mall of America to downtown Minneapolis. He didn't take notes, nor seem to mind that the sentiment in the room was steadily being stacked against him.

First up was Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who urged the developers, lawyers, and engineers at the meeting, sponsored by the the Sensible Land Use Coalition, "not to surrender to sprawl." McLaughlin talked of the Hiawatha light rail line as a catalyst for "a new vision we are creating for transportation in this region, one that is going to replace a flawed vision that was heavily reliant on car pools and meter ramps and more freeways.

"We are not New Jersey--yet," McLaughlin concluded ominously. "But the numbers are pretty clear where we are going on congestion."

And if they weren't, the morning's second speaker was ready

to provide elucidation. Between 1970 and 1975, Metropolitan Council transportation director Nacho Diaz told the group, the Twin Cities grew by 600,000 people and built 200 miles of new freeways. Over the next 25 years the region is expected to expand by another 650,000 folks, with only 20 new miles of highway slated for construction. To counter looming gridlock, Diaz advocated a "multifaceted" approach to mass transit, anchored by an LRT line on Hiawatha.

Another presenter provided some computer-generated slides of what Hiawatha and a series of other proposed rail lines might look like. Then, finally, it was show time for Cox, who helped implement an ill-fated LRT network in Los Angeles before moving to suburban Chicago and becoming a national consultant on urban transit issues.

Cox began with a taunt: "Harry Truman developed a reputation for 'giving them hell.' When asked about this, Truman responded that he just told the truth, and they thought it was hell. That is what my presentation today is about.

"It seems to be a foregone conclusion in the audience that light rail will reduce traffic congestion and air pollution," Cox noted, with just a hint of chiding in his voice. He proceeded to report data showing that of the 12 cities that have built modern rail lines, only Washington, D.C., experienced an infinitesimal improvement in congestion--and that was with a $12 billion, 90-mile subway system. (New York's subway, Washington's Metro, and Chicago's El are all heavy-rail systems, which feature bigger cars and wider tracks than light-rail operations. While both types of trains are powered by electricity, heavy-rail systems usually draw their power from in-ground rails, while light-rail trains get theirs from overhead wires.)

When rail works at all, Cox claimed, it's in cities where large numbers of people live and work near any given stop. The Twin Cities have the second-lowest population density among the country's top 25 metropolitan areas. What's more, Cox argued, U.S. Department of Energy figures show that LRT is more accident-prone and not as fast as the automobile or buses: "Whatever rather modest benefits rail may bring to the transit system can be obtained for considerably less through other strategies," mostly by investing in buses, he insisted. He noted that the opposite had been happening in the Twin Cities, where large fare increases and a lack of funding for the bus system has actually cut transit ridership by nearly 40 percent since 1979.

There are only two possible reasons to build LRT, Cox concluded. One is "to provide an incinerator for federal funding that otherwise would be spent in other areas." The other is "to build rail simply to build rail, as sort of a 20th-century bureaucratic idolatry."

At the close of Cox's broadside there was a disquieting buzz in the room. Finally one of the lawyers present stood up and implored, "Nacho, can you briefly fill in the gaps on the sermon we just heard?"

Diaz went to the podium. "Wendell did a very good job of presenting the other side of the picture," he said. "It's true that this region isn't one where LRT will be a panacea. I wouldn't paint such a dark picture, but a lot of what Wendell said is right."

For nearly 30 years now, light rail proponents have been the local political equivalent of the boy who cried wolf, creating lots of excited talk with no results or ramifications. Newspaper archives are filled with stories about rail lines being planned and approved, with announced completion dates that have long since come and gone. Heated debates have occurred over building a tunnel under downtown Minneapolis, including Ramsey County in the rail system, and choosing the site of an initial rail line; routes along I-35W, I-94, University Avenue, and Hiawatha Avenue each have had their moment as the preferred choice. Hennepin County spent more than $57 million between 1981 and 1991 on studies and land acquisition for LRT; to this day, it has little to show for the effort besides a few bike trails along the empty right-of-way.

 

But a flurry of events has suddenly brought construction of a local light rail line closer to reality than ever before. Earlier this year, two influential Minnesota members of Congress, Rep. Martin Sabo and Sen. Rod Grams, announced that the federal government might pony up half the cost of a $400 million Hiawatha LRT line, so long as the state Legislature also contributed to the project and a completed proposal was submitted in time for Congress to take action in 1999. Failure to act, the two politicians warned, could doom the prospect of federal LRT aid for many years.

This carrot-and-stick approach worked wonders at the Capitol, where state legislators hurriedly included $40 million for light rail in the 1998 bonding bill and verbally committed to giving another $60 million in the future. Some $30 million has already been spent getting Hiawatha ready for LRT; another $70 million is to come from the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority (funded by metro-area property taxpayers) and the Metropolitan Airports Commission.

The Hiawatha line's total proposed cost--$400 million--is roughly the same as the estimated price tag for a new Twins stadium, and a greater proportion of it is funded by taxpayers. Yet light rail has managed to generate a political coalition that secured its passage in the Legislature with minimal controversy. The huge project is a gravy train of jobs and money for bond lawyers, engineering firms, and construction unions. It's also a popular vehicle for ambitious politicians like McLaughlin, who is widely rumored to be positioning himself to run for the U.S. Senate in 2002--just a year before LRT would be operational--when Paul Wellstone steps down.

In what few surveys and opinion polls have been taken on the issue, the public has consistently voiced its support for LRT. Just two months ago, 10 percent of area residents surveyed by Metro State University named traffic congestion as the region's most significant problem, making it second only to crime in a list of concerns. Light rail was chosen as the best method to relieve congestion by 44 percent of those questioned, ahead of any other option.

Similar levels of support have been found in surveys throughout the last 10 years, though one study suggests that not all light rail supporters are clear on what they are advocating. Back in 1988, a poll by Metro Transit's former governing authority, the now defunct Regional Transit Board, showed that while three-quarters of the respondents favored construction of LRT, most assumed it was either a subway or a monorail like the train that operates at the Minnesota Zoo. In fact, current proposals amount to an updated version of the streetcars that served Minneapolis and St. Paul until the 1940s; on the Hiawatha line, 80-foot vehicles would run on rails next to the roadway, powered by electricity from overhead wires. Only one in seven of the 1988 poll respondents envisioned that kind of system.

Still, with politicians like McLaughlin invoking the specter of New Jersey, citizens growing exasperated with congestion, and a potentially massive payoff for a series of politically influential groups, the local momentum for light rail has never been greater. But hidden at the core of the political hard sell are a number of overstatements, wishful thoughts, and hopeful interpretations. Here, based on an analysis of the promises and the facts behind LRT, are four of the key myths driving the streetcar movement.


myth #1


LRT WILL REDUCE TRAFFIC CONGESTION

This is a matter of simple arithmetic. The Met Council projects that the Hiawatha LRT line will carry 21,300 passengers per day once it starts up in 2003. The council also says that approximately 14,000 of those riders would otherwise take the bus, leaving a net gain of just over 7,000 people using public transit. Assuming all of those passengers would otherwise be driving cars at the metro-area average of four trips per day, the line will remove approximately 30,000 car trips from the roads--a mere 1 percent of the nearly 3 million daily auto trips the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDoT) estimates are now being taken in the region. Scoffs Wendell Cox: "How many times do you have to multiply an insignificance before it turns into a blip?"

 

What's more, the total number of car trips in the region is currently rising at a rate of 3 to 4 percent annually, meaning that merely the increase in trips over the next five years will amount to some 20 times more than what LRT is expected to take off the road. Most of that increase will occur in the suburbs beyond the proposed LRT line, where Met Council figures reveal that two-thirds of the jobs and three-quarters of the people in the area are located, and where public transit is still an inadequate option for many commuters.

And even on roads running directly parallel to the proposed line, planners concede LRT will barely make a dent in traffic. Right now, according to MNDoT surveys, the most congested stretch of freeway in the metro are the six miles along I-35W from Highway 62 to downtown Minneapolis, a route less than two miles away from the proposed Hiawatha line. If LRT were going to alleviate traffic congestion, one might suppose it would be here.

But ask Rich Lau, who works for MNDoT as a traffic systems and research engineer, whether LRT would have a noticeable impact on the periods of worst congestion, and he replies with a flat "No. The flow rate wouldn't change during the rush-hour periods we are talking about; the road would still be full." The reason is the sheer volume of highway traffic, which can be likened to water running through a pipeline. When the spigot is turned on full blast during the morning and evening rush hours, the flow isn't going to be affected by LRT pricking a pin hole in the pipe and siphoning away a trickle of passengers.

Lau estimates that it would be "about an hour or two after the peak period, like about 7 o'clock in the evening," before the people taken off the road by LRT would make a difference. In other words, the trains would only improve traffic congestion when there isn't much of it anyway.

Furthermore, the Hiawatha line as currently proposed would never reach many of the region's worst traffic bottlenecks, like the one along I-35W near Highway 13 in Burnsville--and even if it did, most drivers there wouldn't benefit from it. According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, more than 80 percent of the cars heading north from Highway 13 and I-35W don't go to downtown Minneapolis. Their occupants are commuters who turn east or west before reaching the city, or keep going north past downtown.


myth #2


FEDERAL FUNDING FOR THE HIAWATHA LRT IS A DONE DEAL

"We've had a lot of theoretical meetings about LRT, but now we're talking reality," said Peter McLaughlin to members of the Minneapolis Downtown Council a few weeks ago. "There is money available and we are ready to move forward."

In fact, the Hiawatha LRT project won't be going anywhere without $200 million from the federal government. As McLaughlin noted, that money is indeed available, but it is going to require a lot of rapid, disciplined maneuvering by local planners and politicians to put Minnesota in a position to grab it.

The Hiawatha line is one of 180 projects Congress authorized for funding under the federal transportation bill passed in May, and it is universally acknowledged that not all of them can actually receive the money. Before powerful Minnesota members of Congress such as Sabo, Grams, and Rep. Jim Oberstar can exercise their clout, staffers at the Federal Transit Administration in Washington will be ordering the projects according to a series of criteria, not least of which will be organization and viability.

"Getting authorized is like getting past the maître d' at a restaurant," explains Curt Johnson, chair of the Met Council, which is slated to operate the Hiawatha line. "You've got a seat at the table but you still need to get the waiter's attention, and the place could run out of food before you order." And because planners are hurrying to put the the LRT package together, no one can be sure yet what the Hiawatha order will look like. At no fewer than four places along the route, complex questions must be resolved before Minnesota submits its application to Congress less than six months from now.

One major uncertainty concerns LRT's path in downtown Minneapolis. The existing light rail plan only brings the line to the edge of downtown, with potential stops at the Metrodome and the old Milwaukee Depot site. Nobody expects it to remain that way, and city planners have hastily put together six possible routes into the city's business core. Some include service to the Convention Center; some focus on workers commuting to the downtown office towers; some are geared toward patrons getting off at the Metrodome and Target Center. There are proposals for running two rail lines on the same street, and for razing a building or two.

 

Whichever route is picked, planners say, will lose 90 percent of its automobile traffic. Businesses along the chosen path figure to get a boost from the presence of LRT, provided they can survive months of noise and disruption as the rail line is constructed. Four of the six proposed routes would require a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, a mandatory in-depth study which would delay the entire project an estimated nine months.

"Every one of these options has its pros and cons," Mike Monahan, Minneapolis's assistant director of public works, told members of the Downtown Council in early June. "There is no one route that has no concerns or problems. There will be compromises." City Council members must reach those compromises and make a decision that will affect nearly all the major players in the downtown business community--and they must do it by the end of this month. Otherwise, state officials may not have time to properly design the route before submitting their proposal to Washington.

A second obstacle that could delay LRT plans is a legal challenge by the Park and River Alliance over the construction of the Hiawatha line through an area near Minnehaha Park and historic Camp Coldwater. A U.S. district judge threw out the Alliance's lawsuit in May, ruling that the statute of limitations for a legal challenge had expired in 1991. But last week, the Alliance announced that it will appeal the decision.

McLaughlin acknowledges that an appeal "could tie up" the LRT process. And the Met Council's Johnson agrees that "it's not a trivial matter. A lawsuit has the effect of delaying things and that can be fatal here."

The third series of bureaucratic hurdles along the Hiawatha line surrounds the airport. LRT planners are proposing to build a tunnel into the east side of the terminal, on land mostly owned by the Veterans Administration and the Minneapolis Park Board. That real estate would have to be purchased or leased and put under the control of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) in what could be one of the more complicated land deals in recent metro-area history.

More significantly, MAC has been exploring the possibility of building a new airport terminal a half-mile west of the current facility and using its existing structure for ticketing, bag checking, and maintenance. Putting an LRT stop at the airport would either doom those plans or create a half-mile trek for passengers between the terminal and the trains.

Then there is the matter of how much money MAC should contribute for LRT. Right now, the budget ambiguously calls for the commission to share $70 million of the funding burden with metro property taxpayers. Rail advocates claim the Hiawatha line will save the airport millions in parking costs. But MAC spent $29 million 10 years ago to create 3,000 new parking spaces, and it's in the midst of a $150 million project to create another 6,000. What's more, airport officials estimate that fewer than 3 percent of their passengers will use LRT.

Even if MAC (which receives most of its money from the airlines) were to be persuaded to fork over wads of cash, it's not clear the Federal Aviation Administration would allow it. The FAA did approve airport funding of a rail line devoted almost exclusively to airport passengers in New York. But in a case more analogous to the situation in Minnesota, the feds ruled that the airport in San Francisco could only be levied the cost of the rail stations inside its facility. That would amount to less than $2 million here. LRT planners can either consume precious time and gamble that the FAA will rule more favorably on airport funding for a Hiawatha line, or they can stick local taxpayers with a $70 million tab.

Next along the gauntlet of obstacles facing LRT planners is the unresolved situation around the Mall of America, at the southern end of the Hiawatha line. If you think the situation downtown or at the airport is murky, consider that Nacho Diaz says the piece in Bloomington is "the one where we have the most work to do. Determining where the park & ride lots should be, and the station locations--there hasn't been enough planning done."

LRT advocates like to point out that the Hiawatha route will benefit from the much-desired "barbell effect," meaning that there are highly populated destination points (downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America) at each end of the line. The dilemma they face is getting LRT close enough to tap into the Mall's traffic without getting in the way of the Mall's commerce. If an LRT station is within walking distance of the Mall, for example, what is to prevent a passenger from parking for free in one of the Mall's lots and taking the rail to the airport en route to a week's vacation in Las Vegas? "That is a danger, and an issue that we are all working on to resolve," says the Mall's associate general manager, Maureen Bausch. The problem is more acute because land around the Mall is scarce and expensive, and LRT planners may not be able purchase enough for the rail's own park & ride lots.

 

To further complicate matters, Bloomington city officials have indicated they don't want the increased traffic and parking lots from an LRT terminus. They'd rather see the route extended across the Minnesota River into Dakota County, a contingency that would add tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to the project. Perhaps it is no coincidence that in May, Bloomington's public works director told the Star Tribune that there was no time frame for selecting an LRT route through the city, and that Bloomington would not be hurried by the fact that Minneapolis was further along in the planning process.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking down on an advantageous application for federal funds from Congress. "You'd be correct in saying that we face a lot of challenges that require rigorous attention to detail and extraordinary discipline," says Curt Johnson. "If any of these issues becomes a weak link, yes, that could be a problem. The landscape is littered with mines that could blow us up in many different ways."


myth #3


THE COST OF THE HIAWATHA LRT ROUTE WILL NOT EXCEED $400 MILLION

Even by the standards of massive, government-run public works projects, rail systems are renowned for exceeding their estimated budgets. From heavy rail projects in Washington, Atlanta, and Baltimore, to light rail lines in Buffalo and Portland, to a combination of the two in Los Angeles, cost overruns of more than 50 percent have been the norm. "You can expect the cost of rail construction to be 50 to 100 percent higher than the planners' estimates," Wendell Cox told the Sensible Land Use Coalition meeting. "And the federal government will not pay for this overrun--you will, in higher taxes."

McLaughlin and other LRT proponents argue that they have learned from the mistakes made in other cities. They cite the fiscal discipline exercised during the construction of light rail in San Diego in the 1980s as a blueprint for how they will rein in costs here. But as Cox points out, San Diego achieved significant savings by driving hard bargains with unions, "and there traditionally has never been the political will to do that in Minnesota." Especially when unions are among the most ardent supporters of LRT.

"I think $400 million is a reasonable budget, but I admit it could get out of its boundaries with little additions here and there," says Curt Johnson. "There is a potential for that happening both in downtown Minneapolis and at the Bloomington terminal."

Actually, there is no need to speculate about possible cost overruns: They're already being built into the project. None of the six options Minneapolis is mulling for extending the line into the downtown core is projected to come in under $30 million, an amount not included in the project's $400 million budget so far. And even the estimates between $31 million and $41 million are unrealistically low, says Minneapolis transportation systems engineer Bob Morgan, because they are based on the government being able to purchase property right-of-ways for the assessor's market value. "In my 30-plus years with the city, we've never purchased land, either by condemnation or negotiation, for the assessor's market value. It's always been higher," he says.

Finally, much as LRT planners might try to be diligent about keeping costs down, their bargaining position is weakened by the need to sort out all the line's problems in time to secure congressional funding. With $200 million of federal money potentially at stake, officials are under pressure to compromise over disagreements with Bloomington, the Park and River Alliance, and the Metropolitan Airports Commission. Such compromises usually don't come cheap.

How likely is it that the Hiawatha line will exceed its budget projections? Lyle Wray, the executive director of the Citizens League, a local public-policy organization, is confident enough to offer this declaration: "I will personally eat a copy of your newspaper in the public square if this project comes in at $400 million."

 


myth #4


LRT WILL LEAD THE WAY TO A BOLD NEW VISIONARY ATTITUDE TOWARD MASS TRANSIT IN THIS REGION

Many key proponents of LRT--from the true believers like Peter McLaughlin to the reluctant converts like Curt Johnson to the dutiful public servants like Nacho Diaz--know that a single rail line won't have any impact on congestion. They know that getting the first route up and running will be an arduous bureaucratic battle. And they know that, like many public works projects, the Hiawatha line is susceptible to massive cost overruns.

Yet each man in his own way has come to embrace the notion that LRT represents the best hope for creating a comprehensive transit plan that will wean the public away from its reliance on the automobile. Each is, in other words, banking on a historic shift in human behavior, and it's that hope that underlies all the other light rail myths.

McLaughlin enthusiastically compares the construction of LRT lines to the building of highways after World War II and calls light rail opponents "the dead hand of the past reaching out to strangle the future." Johnson supports LRT "more for the impact than the efficiency" and fatalistically acknowledges that "the logic remains indisputable that you can do more in transit with buses--but logic doesn't move political mountains like LRT." Diaz repeats his mantra that rail is "not a silver bullet, but is a very important part of our multifaceted transit strategy."

Politically, the time seems right. "The public is concerned about the steady growth in highway congestion," says Scheffer Lang, chair of the executive committee for the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota and a former professor of transportation engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "They recognize that we can't afford to build our way out of congestion and that even if we could, people don't want highways built near them. They see streetcars in other cities and say, 'Why can't we have one of those?' And the politicians hear them and say, 'Yeah, why not?' And so you have this momentum.

"But the public's understanding of the alternatives is limited, and the public's willingness to change its behavior under these circumstances is limited," Lang warns. "Most of the professionals--the people who study urban transit problems for a living-- have concluded that rail can't do the job people think it can do." Even in cities championed by LRT supporters as success stories--Dallas, St. Louis, Portland--rail lines built for hundreds of millions of dollars are carrying tens of thousands of passengers while roadways are no less congested than they were before.

Moreover, local LRT advocates are often disingenuous or unrealistic in their visions for a world in which LRT serves as the catalyst for a major expansion of the bus system: The history of metro-area transit funding in recent years is that LRT has actually deprived the bus company of resources. Johnson recalls that for many years prior to the most recent state legislative session, "rail advocates didn't support buses much at all; they saw them as a threat to their existence."

During his tenure as head of Metro Transit (then called Metropolitan Council Transit Operations) in the late '80s, Mike Christenson often complained about LRT competing for state dollars. Three years ago, after leaving to become executive director of the Allina Foundation health care group, Christenson bluntly remarked that "the focus on LRT is slowly destroying the bus company."

Since then, Christenson has become an LRT supporter who believes "we didn't have a strong enough constituency to get what we needed at the Capitol back then anyway." Yet he still concedes that LRT lobbying efforts "were a big distraction" as he tried to convince legislators to support the bus system. Throughout the '80s and '90s, the system routinely got less than the relatively modest funding requests it put in at the Legislature.

In a report issued this year by the state's Office of the Legislative Auditor, the bus company was shown to be doing a good job relative to its scarce resources; but, the report said, increasing fares imposed as a result of the funding drought led to a loss of some 40,000 riders since 1979. That's nearly twice the number of passengers projected to be carried on the Hiawatha line.

"It is embarrassing to go to Bangkok and find a better bus system in a Third World country than what we have here," jokes the Citizens League's Wray. "Imagine what would happen if our system were to get the $400 million going to LRT; we could give all the passengers neck massages and jacuzzis." Or, as Wendell Cox suggests, the dollars earmarked for LRT would suffice to create five new bus corridors: "You could get three going out of Minneapolis and two out of St. Paul, with greater flexibility and efficiency of service."

 

LRT advocates counter that public support for the bus system alone isn't strong enough to engender that kind of funding; better that buses market themselves in conjunction with light rail. "It's important to give people options," says current bus company president Art Leahy. "We're not waiting for light rail; we're painting more than 200 buses and have bid out on five new hybrid-electric buses. But it is easy to see why rail would be popular. It is a very smooth, clean ride. People need different things at different times. But if you are given a choice between a Cadillac ride and a Hyundai ride, which are you going to choose?"

"Like it or not, customers are more ready to take LRT than a bus; it is more of a customer lure," says McLaughlin. "But that can be a catalyst to lift the whole transit system up. We could keep going with the sane lanes and carpooling, and toll proposals and everything, but I kind of feel like the other side has had their day. We have fought years and years for LRT and never had a breakthrough. During that time, occupancy in vehicles is down, bus ridership is down, congestion is growing. The old model isn't cutting it; it is time to step aside and try a new way. Let the popularity of LRT help make a new breakout strategy for transit."

But is the sight of gleaming new rail cars along a single metro route really enough to compel millions to leave their cars at home? Ten years ago, three-quarters of the people polled by the Regional Transit Board said that LRT probably or definitely should be built here. But the survey also revealed that those supporting light rail tended to do so because they hoped other people would use it, making their own drive to work less congested.

Two more surveys are illuminating here: This year, the Met Council estimated that commutes which take 30 minutes today will be increased to 45 minutes by the year 2020. And in 1994, MNDoT asked drivers living in Burnsville, Apple Valley, Lakeville, and Savage how many more minutes of travel time they would have to face before they found a way to use the car-pool lanes--generally a quicker alternative than LRT--on I-35W. The amount of extra time they would tolerate averaged out to 25 minutes.

Judging from those numbers, it might be decades before congestion patterns are bad enough to wean many commuters from their current driving habits. Until then, the most likely LRT riders are those who might just as easily jump on a fast, cheap, well-funded bus system.

Peter McLaughlin and other LRT supporters believe consumers' initial experience with light rail will create a demand for more routes within the region. But what happens 10 or 20 years from now, if the economy is not in great shape and both the concept and the hardware of LRT have aged; when metro property-tax bills start to reflect the region's share of LRT construction, not to mention the $8 million in annual operating costs for the Hiawatha line? Current projections suggest that only one-third of those operating costs will be covered by passengers.

Will light rail still serve as a catalyst for the public imagination, producing the billions of dollars experts agree are necessary to provide real transit options for people around the metro? Or will it become the transit system's leech, consuming funds that might otherwise go to buses and forcing bus route changes to feed the trains? Already, the Citizens League's Wray predicts that "people in South Minneapolis are going to discover that some of their direct north-south routes are going to be cut or redirected in an east-west direction to intersect with light rail." How, to use Leahy's analogy, will we react when we're paying off the Cadillac, and the Met Council tries to sell us on the cost of a whole fleet of Hyundais?

"My biggest concern is that the cost of LRT is going to distract us and discourage us from taking up other transit issues and costs," says Wray. "When we're faced with other things we need to do, like reduce congestion on the freeways or ensure that low-income people are able to get where they're going, I'm afraid the public is going to say, 'Wait a minute; didn't we just pay half a billion dollars to get these things taken care of?'"

 

McLaughlin, for one, believes the window of opportunity is not open for very long. "If this first line flops, we're toast," he told the Sensible Land Use Coalition. "It has got to work."

And yet even staunch opponents of light rail have difficulty denying its mystique. "People say, 'It's time to try something new.' But trains and streetcars are 200 years old," says Wray. "It is good propaganda, a way to play on environmental guilt. Next thing you know, they'll be painting them lime green and running them on natural gas. As Curt Johnson once said to me, it's a desire named streetcar."

"I was out in Portland not too long ago," says the university's Scheffer Lang. "The ridership was not up to expectations on the east line of their rail system and of course it wasn't affecting congestion. And yet they were going ahead and building a west line. I talked to two people about this--one was a strategic planner for the bus system and another was a senior staffer for what Portland's version of the Citizens League would be.

"They essentially gave me the same answer: 'Yeah, LRT really hasn't made much of a difference in our transportation system,' they said. 'But this is an important statement of what the community wants and what kind of community we want to be. We don't want to be auto-dominated or sprawl-dominated.'

"Later I talked to a good friend of mine who is one of the foremost experts on transportation in Canada. 'Everybody says this is the future,' he told me. 'It is kind of a monument to an idea.' Then he said, 'Better you should build pyramids. At least they don't have any operating costs.'"

City Pages intern Eric Walter contributed research to this story.


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