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Why cities embrace light rail

If you get motorists off crowded roadways and into trains, you're going to give some congestion relief.

By Lyndon Henry

Originally published as an op-ed on Oct. 21, 2007 in the Charlotte Observer

Fusillades of claims and counter-claims are flying in Charlotte's debate over funding its transit system. "I'm swimming in numbers," as The Observer's Mary Schulken complained in a recent column.

While "numbers games" are being used to sow confusion, establishing truth often depends on numerical data, such as this.

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 underway.

And earlier this month, Norfolk's new 7.4-mile light rail project was OKed for federal funding. All this would hardly be happening if rail transit were the hopeless failure that critics portray.

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.

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.

4. 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 percent of the carbon-emitting energy intensity of an automobile and 45 percent of a bus.

5. 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.

6. With unit operating costs lower on average than those of buses, light rail tends to be a bargain, accommodating growing ridership more economically (by adding more unmanned railcars to trains). Even with capital costs included, light rail costs may be lower than those of buses.

7. It's a myth that new rail services require new bus routes as feeders. Instead, existing services are typically rerouted 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.

8. Unfortunately, all the fusillades ofdata 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.

Lyndon Henry is a data analyst for Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority in Austin, Texas