Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: There's really nothing light about the topic of light rail

November 5, 2007

Twenty U.S. cities have some form of light rail systems in operation, and about 40 more are constructing or seriously considering light rail systems.

While the list of cities with active systems isn't really all that surprising (you can see it online at w w w. a p t a . c o m ) , are other cities so busy building or extending them?

Imagine a trolley system with regular stops within a city, but it has the ability to travel at higher rates of speed on long runs. In most downtown areas, the trains run on fixed rails along streets, generally in their own lane. Stops tend to be about 300 yards apart, and look like bus stop shelters (which they may also be).

Away from the downtown area, the trains tend to run about 50 mph along their own right-of-way, separated from road traffic. Stops are generally less frequent and passengers board the trains from sheltered platforms.

The cost of a light rail system depends on its complexity, any land purchases, right-of-ways and the amount of bridge or tunnel construction. Typically, new construction averages more than $40 million per mile-or about twice the cost of one lane of a new interstate highway per mile. So it's not surprising that light rail has more enemies than friends, including road builders and people who oppose any program that requires public funding. And the enemies have some compelling arguments -at least for today:

Who will get out of their car to ride our little railroad? IndyGo's already struggling, so how in the devil will light rail sustain itself?

Sustainability can be questioned. Does all of this construction "energy" some of the places that are studying or constructing systems might surprise you. Many of the cities, like Birmingham, Fort Worth and Jacksonville, are similar to Indianapolis in terms of size and sprawl, but others, like Kenosha, Wisc., don't come close.

So why isn't Indianapolis on either list?

The idea's out there. In fact, it's been out there for several years. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Planning Organization, or MPO, has included light rail options in its overall transportation plan for the Indianapolis metro area.

The initial plan included a light rail corridor to address growth (and the ridiculous amount of traffic) in the northern suburbs. The rail eventually could extend from downtown to the new Midfield Terminal on the west side of the city.

So what's light rail any way, and why really make sense to save some people some time and some gas?

Then there's the fairness question. No matter which direction it goes, why build a fancy system to serve "those other people"!

Smart people with more facts have addressed those and many other questions in other cities, and the reality is that some systems work better than others.

While light rail ridership across the country is increasing, the highways and bus systems have generally been left intact. Our local planners would go farther to say that they are exploring all alternatives, ranging from bicycles to more highways.

Put your imagination to work and light rail will start to make sense.

Putting the new "Indy Metro" light rail system in place will take about 10 years (if we start today). Let's say inflation will drive the cost per mile up to $60 million, so our basic system will probably cost more than $2 billion. Indianapolis would probably need to incorporate some portion of an outer-loop as well the radial (suburb to downtown) lines, so our system would probably cost more.

Now, guess what the price of oil and the cost of driving will be in 2020. Many experts have already reported that the oil fields in Saudi Arabia will be depleted. Just last week, the International Herald Tribune reported for the zillionth time that the global demand for oil is far outgrowing the discovery of new oil.

Battery-powered cars will be far more prevalent in 2020 (I hope). So, we should assume that new or replacement roads and highways aren't going away, but they won't be inexpensive to build, either. Just recently, IBJ featured an article about upgrading three interchanges on the northeast side in 2012. The projected cost: $600 million ... for just three interchanges!

About those highways... We can expect more toll roads in 2020, so hopping on Interstate 70, I-465 or perhaps even U.S. 31 may not be free (which means access points will be restricted, as well). And don't forget the "carbon" tax we will probably have to pay to operate everything in the future.

Two billion or more invested between now and 2020 will probably seem pretty cheap from the viewpoint of the future. The RCA Dome was built for about $90 million over 20 years ago. Even if it's been refinanced, that sure seemed like a steal last January, especially when compared to its big new brother.

The citizens and leaders of over 60 other U.S. cities have already looked into the future. We don't want to get caught looking in our rear-view mirror.



Altemeyer is founding principal of BSA LifeStructures, the city's largest architectural firm. Views expressed here are the writer's.
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