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NPR on LRT

Nice story on NPR about the expansion of light rail around the country. Pretty much everywhere you look in large urban areas, there’s light rail, construction of light rail, or plans for light rail. Couple of points from the story that are worth mentioning:

In Salt Lake City, Phoenix, San Diego and other cities large and small, light rail is taking off. The trains look more like streetcars than anything else. They’re only one or two cars long, and are electrically powered. The narrow footprint of light rail cars allows them to be put in dense urban areas, on already crowded streets.

Generally speaking, light rail is built with its own right of way, while streetcars are built to share existing road lanes with automobiles. That makes light rail faster and more efficient, but also much more expensive than streetcars. When I was listening to this, it made me wonder if they were really speaking about LRT per se, or about LRT plus streetcars plus commuter rail, all lumped together. They cite Dallas as an example in the story but not Houston, which given that Dallas’ system is much more suburban-commuter oriented and less about taking advantage of density makes me think they’re mixing their apples and oranges a bit. I don’t think it changes the nature of the story, I just thought they should have been a little more careful with their terminology.

The current downturn has meant that there have been fewer sales tax revenues, which are paying for the system, and costs have spiraled upward. And in a new era of cutbacks, it’s not clear if more money from the federal government is coming either.

That subject came up in my interview with Gilbert Garcia and Christof Spieler. Until the basic funding mechanism is reauthorized by Congress, there’s no new money available. Which is tragic on many levels, especially if you believe as I do that the feds should be picking up a much greater share of the costs than they do now. Until we change our default assumptions that make funding highways so much easier, and with so much more money to be had, that’s how it’s going to be.

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