Leaping into Light Rail

Hey! What do you know? It's cold!" Rick Simonetta isn't talking about the temperature in downtown Phoenix, which today is 92 degrees in the shade. What's...
June 30, 2008

Hey! What do you know? It's cold!"

Rick Simonetta isn't talking about the temperature in downtown Phoenix, which today is 92 degrees in the shade. What's cold is the water he's sipping from a fountain on the platform of an outdoor train station. Right now, the platform is eerily devoid of passengers, its modern, sage-colored ironwork glinting in the Southwestern sun. But come December, when Phoenix opens its first light-rail line, this station will anchor a huge regional transit system that will stretch north to Glendale and east to Mesa and Tempe. It's a $1.4 billion, 20-mile catapult into transit -- no other light-rail system in the country has been so large right from its inception.

As Simonetta, the system's CEO, inspects the gleaming new stations, he's focused on the details. Phoenix, he notes excitedly, will boast -- make that boasts already -- the first light-rail stations anywhere with chilled water fountains. Simonetta figures that will be a necessity if he's going to persuade drivers to get out of their air-conditioned cars and stand in the heat waiting for trains. To that end, other touches at the stations include sweeping sail-shaped sun shades, tilted in a way that keeps at least 40 percent of the platform shaded at all times, and sand-colored concrete that deflects heat rather than absorbs it. Simonetta can easily envision this station teeming with commuters headed to work, college students on their way to class and other residents coming downtown to shop, catch a concert or watch basketball's Suns or baseball's Diamondbacks play.

Owing to the heat, light-rail stations in the Valley of the Sun may look and feel a little different than those in other cities. Still, the story of another light-rail grand opening has a familiar ring to it. That's because cities around the country have been investing in new systems like never before. That's especially true in the land of Sun Belt sprawl, where the phrase "public transportation" has historically been something of an oxymoron. Austin and Norfolk will launch their own light-rail lines in the next couple of years, joining recently opened systems in places such as Charlotte, Denver, Houston and Salt Lake City. Add Phoenix to the list and you could argue that this pack of cities forms something of a graduating class. They're all moving beyond a car-bound past for a new future with light rail -- and they're all making the change more or less simultaneously.

The current spate of light-rail openings represents the culmination of a decade of both new and recycled ideas about urban planning, transportation choices and how to finance big infrastructure projects. Light rail is enjoying something of a national moment, akin to the subway boomlet 40 years ago that brought MARTA to Atlanta, BART to the Bay Area and Metro to Washington, D.C., and its suburbs. There are some key differences between that era and this one, though. For one thing, the light-rail systems being built today are expressly intended to catalyze transit-oriented development in ways that the last generation of rail investment hadn't envisioned. Plus, Americans seem more ready to ride the rails now than they were in the 1960s and '70s, when their love affair with driving and suburban-style living was still fresh.

That's thanks in no small part to the price of oil. As gas prices soar over $4 per gallon and commuters struggle with ever increasing traffic congestion, drivers are turning to public transit in record numbers. The American Public Transportation Association reports that Americans took 2.6 billion trips on public transportation in the first three months of 2008 -- nearly 85 million more trips than last year for the same time period. In total, 10.3 billion trips were taken on public transportation last year -- the highest number in more than 50 years. By far the biggest increase was in the number of trips on light rail, which saw more than a 10 percent jump in ridership. Several cities' light-rail and streetcar systems grew even faster. Baltimore, Minneapolis, St. Louis and San Francisco all experienced significant growth in passenger loads.

Back to the Future

The current national interest in light-rail transit is, of course, something of a full-circle return to the approach from more than a century ago. Before the rise of the automobile, most cities of any size had streetcar systems. According to the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago, the number of city streetcar systems rose from just one in the whole country in 1885, to at least one in every city of more than 5,000 people by 1902. Scott Bernstein, the center's president, says, "It was the fastest growth in mass transit in our nation's history."

At that time, these systems were privately run and highly profitable. Many commuters worked six days a week, returning home for lunch in the middle of the day, meaning the trains were full throughout much of the week. Times changed. As work patterns shifted, transit trips became less frequent, and as more families later acquired automobiles, ridership dwindled even further. Cities took over the struggling systems, operating them at a loss. By the 1950s, most places had pulled up their streetcar rails and converted to buses, which required a tiny fraction of the upfront capital cost of rails. The era of the auto was in full swing.

In the midst of this era, though, some cities embarked on large-scale mass transit projects. In the '60s and '70s, Atlanta, Baltimore, Miami, Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area all built heavy-rail lines. The systems were commuter workhorses, designed to truck people in from the suburbs to the central city. It was a boom time for rail, but as those cities built out their systems, the nation's capacity for subways and heavy rail seemed tapped out.

Today's focus is light-rail transit -- trains that typically run at street level, with the traffic. Light-rail platforms are more akin to bus stops than subway stations. For these reasons, light rail costs a fraction of what heavy rail does. The city of San Diego launched the first modern light-rail line in 1981. But it was only after Portland, Oregon, demonstrated how light rail could drive development patterns and Dallas showed that trains in the Sun Belt could attract solid ridership that more cities began passing local-option sales taxes to pay for systems of their own. Light rail became the new transit zeitgeist. "Over the last 10 years, but really since 2000, light rail has exploded, both in terms of cities' interest in building it and in terms of ridership," says Jason Jordan, director of the Center for Transportation Excellence, a nonpartisan research center on transit policy. "A lot of these cities are growing very fast, and there are definitely concerns about congestion and pollution. But there's also something a little bit more ephemeral to this. It's about creating what a world-class city looks like."

Yet light rail has always had its critics, especially among fiscal conservatives and libertarians who say it simply costs too much to move too few people. One persistent critic is Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who writes a blog called "The Antiplanner." Responding to the news about rising transit ridership, O'Toole wrote, "Let's say transit continues to grow by 2.1 percent per year and driving grows only at the rate of population growth, or 1.0 percent per year. Then transit will grow to 10 percent of total urban motorized travel after a mere 178 years. I can hardly wait. Until then, transit is pretty irrelevant in any cities not named New York."

Evolving Views

Libertarian objections in the transportation arena have deep roots in the Phoenix area. Right up through the 1970s and '80s, if you were driving through Arizona on Interstate 10, the road would have run out when you got to Phoenix. At the very same time that some other cities were busy building expensive subways, the Phoenix area so opposed government intervention that even an Interstate highway was considered suspect. "It was that whole mindset that we think, 'Oh, that's not a role government should have,'" says Rick Simonetta. "We were late in the game of Interstate building, late in the game of transit, and late in the game of realizing there is a governmental role in building infrastructure."

The "Phoenix gap" may be an extreme case. But it's a reminder of how much some cities in the South and West have changed their worldview in order to support big investments in light rail, says Jordan. "You look at cities like Phoenix, Charlotte, Dallas. These are not just cities without a history of transit. These are cities that were considered downright hostile to transit."

That hostility hasn't completely disappeared. As Charlotte prepared to open its first light-rail line last fall, public-transit opponents mounted an aggressive ballot campaign to cut funding for the project. Although voters in November ultimately opted to continue funding, the anti-transit campaign gave city officials several months of nervous nail biting.

Or, take Norfolk, where a new light-rail system known as "The Tide" is set to open in 2010. The route there begins at a medical center on the west side of town and runs 7.4 miles east through Norfolk -- until it dead ends at the border of the city of Virginia Beach. Although the line was originally meant to be a regional system, Virginia Beach voters opted out of the plan in 1999 and never looked back.

The Phoenix area, too, has seen its share of pushback. The light-rail project was officially organized in 2002, but that capped more than a decade of false starts, as citizens repeatedly voted down tax increases to fund it. Although public opinion in the region now seems to have largely turned, there remain pockets of deep opposition. In the tony suburb of Scottsdale, there was an outcry against even considering whether light rail should come through town. The city eventually decided to join the regional board overseeing light rail, at an annual cost of $50,000, but that still rankles Councilman Bob Littlefield. "The whole push for light rail isn't about transportation," Littlefield says. "It's about development and urbanization -- development that would be out of character for Scottsdale."

For this class of regions that are just coming around to the idea of public transit, opposition isn't the only problem. There's also the challenge of building and operating a rail system in an area where drivers and pedestrians simply aren't accustomed to sharing the road with a train. That was a huge problem in Houston when that city opened its first light-rail line several years ago. The first train-car collision occurred during the testing phase, before the system was officially open. By mid-2004 -- six months into operations -- Houston's METRORail set a new record for most accidents in a year. Critics dubbed the Houston lines the "Streetcar Named Disaster" or the "Wham-Bam-Tram."

Since then, Houston and other cities have put more of an emphasis on educating drivers and pedestrians. Phoenix actually overhauled its blueprints in response to the accidents in Houston. "We were 65 percent into our design process and we went back to the drawing board," says Maria Hyatt, assistant to the Phoenix city manager. The city redesigned many of the intersections where trains and automobile traffic would meet. New features were added, such as large sidewalk planters to discourage pedestrians from walking into the path of a train. "All of the changes were a result of going to Houston and seeing where their accidents were occurring and why they were occurring."

Context Is King

As Rick Simonetta continues walking around downtown Phoenix, pointing out the features of the light-rail stations, it's a little hard to hear him over the din from all the construction sites. Downtown Phoenix is in the middle of a $6 billion building boom -- fueled in part, Simonetta says, by the coming of light rail. Mixed-use residential developments are shooting up everywhere, including a $1 billion project on the site of a former parking lot. The city has just tripled the size of its downtown convention center. Two blocks away, there's a large new Sheraton hotel, built with city funds.

Next to the hotel is a new downtown campus for Arizona State University. Three years ago, the campus didn't exist. This fall, ASU expects to have 8,000 students based downtown -- and the university plans to eventually boost that enrollment to 15,000. The school is building classroom facilities, dorms and a library, and the hope is that students and faculty will use the train to shuttle between the downtown campus and the main campus, which has a stop on the line in Tempe. "ASU is the first success story of our light rail," says Phoenix deputy city manager Tom Callow, "and the system hasn't even opened yet."

If there's any single thing that separates the current light-rail boom from the subway-building era of the 1970s, it's this notion of context. It's the idea that transit systems aren't just for moving commuters from their homes in the suburbs to their jobs downtown. Transit today is seen as a tool to drive development and to help shape the way a city will grow. "There is the understanding now that transit can't succeed in a vacuum," says Jason Jordan. "The cities that are successful are the ones that really work to integrate transit with the city and to encourage transit-oriented development."

Contrast that notion, Jordan says, with one of the mid-century systems, such as Atlanta's MARTA, which was designed with a total emphasis on moving large numbers of people into downtown. The notion that transit should interact with the urban environment was an afterthought, although Atlanta now is working to boost transit-oriented development. "It was this idea that you could just plop a system down into a non-transit-supportive environment and it would work just fine. But you're going to have problems. The current investment in light rail, then, isn't being undertaken in isolation. The light-rail boom is part of a much broader movement toward creating community."

In the current light-rail moment, cities finally seem to be realizing the full potential for transit to catalyze urbanism. But the current moment could be over soon. After this graduating class of systems finishes coming on line, it will be some time before they're joined by any new cities. For one thing, the skyrocketing costs of construction materials are making capital investment in light rail much more expensive than it was only a few years ago. And in a weak economy plagued by a housing crisis and a credit crunch, cities may be skittish about asking voters to fund multibillion-dollar rail projects.

The biggest reason why this transit chapter may be coming to a close, however, is because the federal government isn't as keen on light rail as cities are. All federal money for light rail is approved through the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program. Unlike road projects, light-rail systems seeking federal funds must compete against one another -- and against other forms of transit that federal criteria have tended to favor, such as bus rapid transit. New Starts doesn't take into account development potential, creating a sense of place, or reducing harm to the environment. Rather, funding is based on the ability of a system to replace car trips with transit trips for the least amount of money.

That may well change in 2009, depending upon the priorities of the next president. For now, though, cities must rely very heavily on their own funds, and on asking voters for more money. It's a situation that Phoenix's Tom Callow says may threaten light rail's potential. "I do think there's a national moment, but I'm not sure the nation's ready to seize it. I think we should, but it's going to be hard." On a bookshelf in Callow's office, high above downtown Phoenix, there's a collection of miniature cars -- Callow was the city's director of street transportation for years before he began working on the light-rail project. "I've been a car guy all my life," he says. "But now I've seen the light."

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