Friday, July 25, 2008

Light Rail is Catching On

A guest post by Hans Riemer.

Hi everyone, it's Hans Riemer — Silver Spring resident, political activist, regular MPW reader — and now, occasional MPW guest writer.

Some of you might remember me as the guy who ran for Council and said he was going to build the Purple Line or die trying. I’ll have you know that I’m still working on it — and I’m not going to up my life insurance policy.

Today, via Purple Line NOW, I bring you a quick update of how light rail is catching on around the country and even the world.

Now, here in Maryland, a lot of people don’t realize that the Purple Line is intended to be light rail. Light rail can be integrated into an existing community harmoniously because it is smaller scale, quiet, and incredibly modern. In Europe, you see light rail laid down right in the middle of many of the oldest and most beautiful cities.

By contrast, metro-scale rapid transit trains are expensive, loud, and, unless they are built underground, very disruptive to existing communities.

Purple Line = light rail = wave of the future:

The Houston City Council voted 13-2 to give the Metro Transit Authority permission to move forward with construction of five light rail lines on city streets. Groundbreaking for the East End line is expected next month. These lines were previously planned to be bus rapid transit, however the City switched gears based on their positive experience with Houston’s first LRT line, which is a source of civic pride.

A recent survey of 1,000 Texans about transportation issues found that a majority of participants support investment in light rail, regional rail, and high-efficiency bus systems, and also oppose the building of new toll roads. 76% of the respondents support a regional rail system connecting Texas cities. Nowhere is this amazing transformation of priorities more evident than in Dallas where the area transit agency DART is working on expansion plans to add two rail lines by 2013 for a total of 91 miles and 93 stations.

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents voted to support the Central Corridor Light Rail alignment through the heart of campus... The line is an 11 mile $892 million project, which will link downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. Like Purple Line plans in College Park, automobile traffic will be banned from one road segment passing through the heart of campus. The project will come with $20 million worth of road improvements in the university district east of the Mississippi River.

Phoenix will become the latest Sunbelt city with light rail when it opens its first LRT Line in December. The 20-mile line connects the Phoenix to Tempe and Mesa and was initiated in 2000 when voters approved a 20-year transit sales tax by a wide margin.

The French LRT system continues to expand by leaps and bounds with the network expected to grow to 358 miles of tracks by 2015. Mulhouse, a small city in the northeastern Alsace region is the latest to open a line. “We wanted a tram that called attention to itself,” says Deputy Mayor Michel Samuel-Weis, “as a symbol of economic vitality, environmental awareness and civic improvement -- transportation as an integrated cultural concept.”

Montgomery and Prince George’s county voters and legislators are remarkably unified on the Purple Line. It doesn’t take an engineer to see that the problem we face in the Washington region — the state’s economic engine — is that our regional transportation plan was originally designed largely to get people in and out of DC. But today, more people are moving around the region rather than to and from the center. The Purple Line should be the start of a new approach to transportation in the region—and just a start.