All aboard!’ in Dallas, Seattle, Portland

ED. Why are we in Vancouver being forced to build heavy rail? We need public debate on the future of transit and transportation in this province, not ill-informed politicians dictating what’s best for us. Of course, we still talking about trains rather than advanced PRT technology, which hopefully will be the next improvement after we give up on 18th Century rail.

The Columbian – Vancouver, WA

John Laird

Light-rail critics might have difficulty answering this question: If light rail is such a wasteful boondoggle, shouldn’t the systems around the nation be contracting and even closing?

Instead, the reverse has been happening for more than 25 years, and the pace of growth is even accelerating. Last week in Dallas, a 28-mile light-rail line opened and — as Texans are wont to brag — they’re calling it the longest light rail project on the continent.

Up in Seattle, light rail has taken many years to develop, but its recent launch and imminent growth are remarkable. A 14-mile line from Seattle to Tukwila opened in July. In December the line will extend 2 miles to the SeaTac Airport, offering a 36-minute ride from downtown to the airport. In the next seven years, a north extension to the University of Washington is planned, and voters have already approved new lines to Lynnwood, Federal Way and Redmond.

Last Saturday in Portland, TriMet opened the 8.3-mile MAX Green Line to Clackamas Town Center. About 40,000 people showed up for free rides on Saturday. Paid ridership on Monday was light, as is typical on new lines, but weekday Green Line ridership is projected to reach 25,000 in a year. Just since 2000, MAX has added 20 miles of service with 34 stations, expanding one of the nation’s top light-rail systems to 52 miles and 84 stations. A seven-mile light-rail line into Milwaukie is next on the drawing board.

So the question persists: How could governments and transportation planners nationwide have been so incredibly stupid — or worse, so duplicitous and corrupt — for the past quarter of a century? If light rail is the expensive flimflam that critics claim, then Americans have been victimized by the most egregious and expensive public works rip-off in U.S. history. Sounds like it’s time for some orange jump suits and perp walks, right?
The distant vision

The truth, of course, is that light rail is a viable transportation alternative for the long-range future. And “long-range” is where a lot of people get divided on this issue.

Light-rail detractors are rooted in the past and entrenched in the status quo.

Their ancestors back in 1916 probably grumbled that a bridge across the Columbia River would cost too much and would only bring crime and rampant growth into Clark County. That bridge was built anyway, because it was the right thing to do. And some horse owners probably went ballistic back when America started paving roads, but it was necessary for the future.

Light-rail supporters, on the other hand, are enthralled by the future and committed to planning for the next century.

These folks are not trying to “take away our cars.” They’re not trying to “force light rail down our throats.” They’re simply trying to keep our grandchildren from charging us with inadequate planning and myopia. Light rail is meant to supplement — not supplant — automobiles.

This debate will rage into perpetuity, fueled by experts on both sides who insist that light rail is too expensive (or a good deal), superfluous (or visionary), and forced-down-our-throats (or sanctioned-by-conventional-wisdom).

In Vancouver, the debate takes on the added component of the Columbia River Crossing project. Some people here see light rail as a sinister snake coiled to inject its poison into our community. Others see it as the next logical step in building a transportation system that will last 50 to 100 years.

To that debate, lets add these facts from a Sept. 12 Oregonian story by Dylan Rivera and Steve Mayes: “Crime on the MAX light rail system dropped 18 percent in 2008, a stunning contrast from the public perception of a crime-riddled conveyance” a couple of years ago. At the Beaverton and Hillsboro light-rail stations, incidents of crime have been reduced by about half in the past two years.

Of course, that trend won’t keep the “Crime Train” bellyachers from spreading their message. But for people who see beyond tomorrow and don’t have an umbilical connection to their cars, that trend bolsters the belief that light-rail systems — just like those dastardly paved roads a century ago — belong in our transportation future.

John Laird is The Columbian’s editorial page editor. His column of personal opinion appears each Sunday

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