Light rail transit: Gaining on the competition

With transportation once again emitting the largest amount of greenhouse gas emissions into America’s air, it is now more important than ever to significantly reduce these and other air-pollutant emissions.

In 2016 transportation-sourced emissions, for the first time since 1978, had overtaken those from the energy sector in terms of yearly output as so-reported on in “2017: A doozy of a year. One for the record books. Unprecedented. Yeah, that.

From its most humble beginnings light rail transit (LRT) in North America has grown to become the mature transportation mode and technology that it is. And, those beginnings could not have been without their trying moments, those moments to be repeated many times over.

Uphill climb

Now approximately 37 years old, the San Diego Trolley is where it all started in this country. SDT is the first of the second-generation light rail systems. With the San Diego Trolley’s opening, North American light rail transit was reborn.

The Trolley has obviously withstood the test of time. The line extends from San Ysidro (on the California/Mexico border) to San Diego proper (Downtown). Orange Line trains tie together the Arnele Avenue station at El Cajon and the Courthouse station Downtown. Green Line trains serve stations in Santee and El Cajon on one end and 12th and Imperial on the other. The Blue Line, meanwhile, connects San Ysidro with America Plaza. Trains will one day reach University Towne Center to San Diego’s northwest.

According to Wikipedia, early on during planning, there was disagreement among stakeholders, the disagreement for a time, at least, remaining unsettled, even with an adopted mission statement and all. Eventually, agreed upon was what technology would be used, worked out were considerations concerning line construction and route selection, a source of funding was identified, service started on Jul. 19, 1981 and as the oft-repeated maxim goes, the rest is history.

Many light rail systems have sprung up all across the North American continent: Canada, Mexico and in the United States.

Denver light rail

In alphabetical order systems exist in Atlanta; Baltimore; Boston; Charlotte; Dallas; Denver; Edmonton, Alberta (Canada); Houston; Los Angeles; Miami; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Monterrey (Mexico); Norfolk-Hampton Roads; Ottawa, Ontario (Canada); Philadelphia; Phoenix; Portland; St. Louis; Salt Lake City; San Jose; San Francisco; Toronto, Ontario (Canada) and Vancouver, British Columbia (Canada) and on and on the list goes. And there are those systems with the catchy names, also in alphabetical order, of DART, LYNX, MAX, Metrorrey, MUNI, PAT, TRAX and WAVE, you get the idea.

For many of these pikes, getting them didn’t come easy for cities. More than a few failed to get enough voter support on the first go-’round but ultimately managed to win favor.

The arguments against them ran the gamut such as “not needed,” “too expensive,” “people won’t ride,” “won’t go where people want and/or need to go,” and “why pay for a train when a bus will work just as well and at less cost.” Yet, even with all of this dissension, look how many systems have appeared and in rare case, reappeared on the scene with still more planned while others are under construction.

Even so, there are those who still insist that such urban LRT systems don’t alleviate congestion, do little to cut air pollution and/or greenhouse gas emissions or are even worth the costs of operation and construction. Construction costs for light rail averages about $35 million per mile.

I, on the other hand, see things differently. I think of all the trips not taken in cars, all the fuel not used and wasted unnecessarily both during idling and in bumper-to-bumper traffic, all the money saved on that unused and unwasted fuel, all the productive time countless light rail patrons have accumulated doing onboard productive work that, in a moving car, is not only very unlikely but difficult if the opportunity is taken, provided that opportunity even exists.

And, meanwhile, welcome the latest additions (completed or under construction), Honolulu’s in Hawaii and Waterloo’s in Ontario, Canada.

Yet, with all of this, all of these train-supplied benefits and all, roads, highways and related infrastructure still receive the lion’s share of funding. Even aviation rakes in more dough than transit.

And, wouldn’t you know it: While all was seemingly hunky-dory, now comes the news that there is a movement afoot in Washington, D.C., the fed attempting to freeze motor vehicle fuel efficiency standards at 30 miles per gallon beginning in 2021 and extending to year 2026, making this issue one of the most contentious and contested at this particular point in history. You better believe California and a number of other states are not going to stand idly by and just take this lying down.

And, to think, it was less than a year ago when, in the same “2017: A doozy of a year.” post, that the following was conveyed.

“It began in earnest in August, on Aug. 16, 2016 to be exact, with the announcement made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that it and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had teamed up to finalize, as the EPA expressed, ‘standards for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles that will improve fuel efficiency and cut carbon pollution, while bolstering energy security and spurring manufacturing innovation. The final phase two standards were called for by President Obama’s Climate Action Plan, and respond to the President’s directive in early 2014 to develop new standards that run into the next decade.’ The model years of vehicles designated to receive the aforementioned improvements are 2021 to 2027, inclusive.”

Surely the powers that be must be familiar with the Washington, D.C. Metro that connects portions of 2 states (Maryland and Virginia) and the District of Columbia without which regional congestion would be further compounded, like when the system shuts down due to extensive repairs being made, for example. The region has one of this nation’s worst traffic congestion problems. On the other hand, when Metro is running, what a weight that is lifted off of area citizenry’s collective shoulders.

Forward-looking, forward-moving

Yet, through it all, light-rail transit is gaining traction however slowly, but always pushing forward nonetheless.

Oh, look for maybe a new LRT operation to come online soon in a city near you?!

I know of none that is not a welcome city addition. All I can say is keep the light-rail miles coming!

Image (bottom): Alstom

This post was last revised on May 22, 2020 @ 1:14 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time.

– Alan Kandel