Inspiration for blog posts comes in strange places. Like my local newspaper, for instance. I recently cut my subscription back to just half a week delivery, yet I still get the paper every day. No wonder newspapers are going belly up. The other day, the unauthorized paper was lying in my driveway, and I wanted something to read while I had my lunch. Hey, you get desperate when you haven’t written a blog post in well over a week!
The article that caught my attention was actually a special insert celebrating the grand opening of LIGHT RAIL in my community. Cue the parade and the herald trumpets. All 7 miles of light rail will be open for business beginning tomorrow. You read that right: 7 whole miles. And the project came in only $100 million over budget and about a year behind schedule. Now, having moved back to this area only a year ago, I caught up on the debate about light rail pretty late in the game. I’m sure there were pages and pages of editorials and letters to the editor written about the project. Even a newcomer, though, can see that the way this endeavor turned out is just a whole lot of silliness.
What good is mass transit that doesn’t go anywhere? The best I can say about this particular light rail system is that it can take you to the minor league baseball stadium. But baseball’s only a seasonal thing. Otherwise, you can only ride from one place in the downtown to another downtown location. The real problem, getting into downtown from the suburbs, is not addressed at all. I guess if you are an urbanite, you won’t have to worry about driving the 2 miles from your townhouse or apartment to your favorite restaurant and finding a place to park. The rest of us will still have to motor down the interstate and circle the city blocks to park our gas-guzzler somewhere that the meter-Nazis will never think to look. As far as commuting to work goes, metropolitan employees will still have to drive within about 4 miles of downtown before they get to a park-and-ride and board a train. You can’t depend on light rail to get you to the airport, either. Doesn’t go anywhere near it. The same goes for the biggest local university.
Our light rail also has nothing to do with the biggest area traffic choke points: the tunnels. I would estimate that about 80% of the traffic jams in my area occur at the 3 tunnels you can’t avoid if you want to go anywhere important. It would be easy to write an entire separate blog post about why people have so much trouble driving through these tunnels. The question remains: Why didn’t anyone think that designing the light rail system as an alternative to driving the tunnels might be a good idea? For sure, it would have been expensive, but you were already $100 million over budget! That couldn’t have paid for a light rail bridge? Somehow, the planners decided instead that it was more important to connect city blocks that are basically walkable. And now our local elected officials still have to deal with finding more money to alleviate traffic congestion so that business will want to open here and people will want to move here.
It’s likely no one will ride it. Sadly, I live in an area in which people don’t “get” mass transit. Most people will tell you that they “need” to have access to their car all day. These people are idiots. I’ve lived in the Washington DC area, and I’ve experienced first-hand how mass transit simplifies your life. No need to fill up the gas tank twice a week or more. No worries about the parking lot that is I-66 or the Beltway every day twice a day. And no wondering where you’re supposed to park. Just get on that bus or train and sail into town while listening to some tunes, reading the news, or even sleeping. Then stretch your legs in the few blocks you have to walk from the station to work. People in and around DC get their kids to and from daycare, pick up dry cleaning, grab coffee on their way in the morning and rotisserie chicken on the way home at night. It all works around the bus or the Metro. Here, folks have just gotten lazy. They imagine the end of the world as we know it if they can’t hop in the car at any given moment.
No one asked me, but…You can’t expect people to abandon their cars and hop on a train to nowhere just because it’s shiny and new. Since planners and legislators have chosen to ignore the elephant in the room that is the tunnel nightmare, how about focusing on being able to get to the places we want to go? An exit out of the HOV lane to the airport would be nice. Maybe a friend would be happy to drop you off at the airport on his way to work if he could cruise the commuter lane. What about express buses that travel in the HOV lane from various park-and-ride lots to the big naval station? This may not be practical for the active-duty folks whose hours can be irregular, but what about the thousands of civilian employees who work 9-5 jobs? And if you made most of the parking at the naval station active-duty only, this would “encourage” DoD civilians to take advantage of bus transport. Oh! And what if you took away high school parking spaces for students and made kids either ride the bus or walk to school? Build more sidewalks and make more kids walk, I say. These are win-win solutions: fewer cars on the road and better for kids’ health. And what about expanding the bus routes already in place in the community? Express to the colleges, hospitals, and major employers, please.
Now, I may be wrong, but I doubt the federal government would kick in 75% of the cost of my ideas like they did for light rail. Plus, you can’t have a fancy ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of a lazy kid moaning about having to walk to school. And there’s no place in the HOV lane to feature kids’ artwork in murals like you can at a light rail station. Nope. Shiny, slow trains that go back and forth over 7 miles make much more sense.