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Monday, May 18, 2009

Light Rail Transit: A Feasible Option?

See? I told you it was time to talk transit. In this morning's Times, a developer discussed his idea for a light rail transit (LRT) system in Huntsville. His idea is to have a line from the airport to Research Park, eventually being extended as an elevated line over 565 to UAH and Downtown; another line from Research Park through the Arsenal to a Martin Road park-and-ride; and yet another line from Downtown to Martin Road.Now, hold up there. While I hate being skeptical on such an interesting proposal, LRT shouldn't be the first thing we should be looking into. It would be like building a house without a foundation. LRT is expensive compared to buses and commuter rail (but less expensive than building a highway), so a tax increase of some sort will be involved. Alabamians don't like taxes anyway; why would we give more to government so they can spend it on something that hasn't been proven to work here?

I'm also afraid that this proposal won't work in its current form, because it has the classic problem of Huntsville's transit system-- It doesn't go where people need to go. Say you drive over Chapman Mountain, one of the most congested stretches of road in Huntsville, every day to get to work in Research Park. Would it help your commute any if you still had to drive over the mountain to get to the Downtown Station park-and-ride (assuming there would be one in this plan) to complete the 5-10 minutes left in your trip?

First, we need to prove that well-designed, efficient public transit can work in Huntsville using less expensive options, such as bus (local, express, and rapid) and commuter rail, possibly a test line using existing track and diesel multiple units (DMUs, seen on the Sprinter line in San Diego County, CA) between Decatur and Downtown Huntsville. And only then, after we have a successful regional transit system in place, should we talk about LRT. (I like the idea that's been thrown around of a north-south line through Huntsville using mostly-existing rail rights-of-way.)

But like I've said, before anything is implemented, there needs to be a plan. And any transit plan needs to include the whole region. This "Huntsville-only" and "Madison County-only" mentality isn't going to work anymore. Mayor Battle's got the right idea (from the Times):
"Battle pointed out that Redstone Arsenal's employees are coming here from 13 counties, and that local and area rail or other public transport would be welcome. 'We need to go to a regional transportation mode,' he said..."
Now, of course it's not possible to have a rail system extending to every "bedroom community" of Huntsville. That's where a regional bus system comes in. Local buses would connect surrounding neighborhoods to transit centers, while express buses would provide non-stop service from park-and-rides in outlying areas like Meridianville, Arab, Athens, etc. to transit centers in major employment areas like Downtown, Research Park, etc.

For further reference, Huntsville's going to need to look at what other cities have done. Here are some we should look at:
  • Trimet (Portland, Oregon)- considered one of the best, most comprehensive transit systems in the country. An expansive light rail/commuter rail system complemented with a large bus system, and strict metro-wide planning controls that make transit more inviting. For more info on some of the measures Portland took to make itself transit-friendly, check out this recent interview of Trimet general manager Fred Hansen on Canadian public television.
  • Sprinter (Oceanside, California)- a commuter rail line in a city only a bit larger than Huntsville. This is the transit system we should look into if we ever start a commuter rail service to Decatur.
  • So, you think that public transit only works in so-called dense, "liberal" cities? DART (Dallas) and UTA TRAX (Salt Lake City)-- These newer systems are proof that mass transit can work in sprawled, conservative cities. They each have aggressive expansion plans, and their ridership numbers are comparable, and sometimes larger than, cities with established mass transit.
  • Metro (Washington, DC)- No, I'm not saying we need to build a subway system, but this system has good examples of two things Huntsville needs more of-- multi-level (city, county, state) cooperation, and their website looks cool, is easily accessible, and frequently updated.
I have no doubt that light rail (or any kind of mass transit) will be successful in Huntsville-- but only after its planned to meet the needs of the region as a whole, not just the Arsenal or a select few in West Huntsville.


Anonymous said...

If the light rail crossed the arsenal, people in south Huntsville might be willing to ride, just to save time driving up the parkway and out 565.

I don't know if Huntsville has the density to support light rail though.

Steve said...

I agree with your view on the Huntsville only or Madison only mentality that these people have. Fortunately, that should change within the next two years. Cesnus estimates show that Morgan County's population is soon to hit the critical percentage of commuters to Madison county, so Morgan should be included in Huntsville's metro next summer. While I'm sad to think of the Decatur Metro leaving, it is unavoidable. Anyways, after this the MPO will cover the Huntsville-Decatur area and then we should see some actual progress in the way of regional cooperation.

Sharp said...

Sorry I just came upon this but I wanted to interject something. Another thing hamstringing Huntsville actually meeting the transportation needs of its citizens is its obsessive, myopic, gentrifying focus on the needs of those who work in white collar jobs on the Arsenal and in Research Park. The majority of citizens DON'T WORK THERE. (I do, btw.) They work for all the vendors and service companies who make life on the Arsenal and in our schools and homes and parks possible. They will be the ones driving the buses and repairing the rails. They are also the ones more likely to need low-cost transportation. Their neighborhoods will need more service than anyplace else.