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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 3, NO. 2 -- FEBRUARY/MARCH 2001
 

Catching the Train to TND

By Andy Kunz

There are two related but distinct revolutions taking place in America. The first is new urbanism, the complete reshaping of our built environment; the second is new trains, the reshaping of our transportation systems. Just as new urbanism is becoming widely accepted as the solution to sprawl, new train systems are becoming accepted as the solution to our growing traffic congestion.

We are truly experiencing a train renaissance in America, and it couldn't have come at a better time. As many new urban places get built and older downtowns come back to life, trains help support these pedestrian-friendly places. People are growing tired of the two-hour commute and the constant frustration of congested roads; they are searching for a better lifestyle. The combination of walkable urban neighborhoods served by high quality trains provides that alternative.

Nearly every region in the country is building or planning new rail systems, even heavily car-oriented places like Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas. With growing opposition to more roads, traffic jams and sprawl, planners are looking to new train systems to solve the problems.

According to the American Public Transit Association (APTA), there have been over 400 applications for federal new train starts, up from less than 200 in 1992. Headlines are appearing in newspapers, magazines, and on the internet: "Houston Light Rail Approved," "Dallas Rapid Transit on Track With Expansion Program of Epic Proportions," "Denver Rail Opens to Record Crowds," "Florida High Speed Rail Passes Vote." This is good news for everyone, especially those who spend over two hours per day stuck in traffic.

One of the most aggressive new train systems underway is the Dallas light rail network (DART), which started construction just four years ago. DART is now in the process of doubling the size of the original system, with more than 50 miles of new track being laid and 14 new rail stations under construction. The citizens voted to expand the system several times, and it currently receives daily ridership of over 38,000 passengers. The new train system has spurred new urban development projects around the stations totaling more than $800 million. Property values have gone up 25 percent nearby over the past four years.

As Texas is an oil state, it was not an easy thing to get a new train system started. Oil companies make a lot more money with people stuck in traffic. U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) went as far as blocking long-term funding for Houston's light rail line at the federal level. In Dallas, train advocates started in 1982 to try to get a vote passed favoring the new train. It went through five campaigns before it finally passed a vote for a 1 percent sales tax to build the train.

"Dallas ... is not the kind of city that you'd think would take rail to its heart, but we couldn't build our way out with concrete," said Sue Bauman, vice-president of marketing and communications at DART. Over 70 percent of Texas voters said yes to the new rail system this past summer by voting to spend $3.1 billion for long-term funding. This was the biggest bond ever passed in the state of Texas.

Good design has played a big part in the success of the current wave of new train systems. In addition to attractive and modern rail cars, DART has spent a lot of time and money coming up with exceptionally designed stations, slick marketing campaigns, and an old movie theme to its advertisements and poster designs. Good design encourages more people to ride and makes the new trains more successful.

Other new train starts include Phoenix, which passed a "yes" vote last March for a new 20-mile system after a number of "no" votes. The new system will have 22 stations, is in preliminary engineering now, and is set to open in 2006. Denver opened its new 8.7-mile line in July 2000 with a record-breaking 25,000 riders on the first day and 35,000 on the second day. According to Rail Magazine, "The Denver Regional Transportation District's new southwest light-rail line is drawing six times more passengers than express buses that used to cover the same route. Buses carried about 1,900 people a day, while the train is drawing more than 11,000. That's 32 percent higher than RTD's estimates." Los Angeles is currently building the first phase of its planned 37-mile light rail system. And, Florida voters just passed a new high-speed rail system initiative in November. This new train is to connect all five metropolitan regions in the state with high-speed rail service and is supposed to start construction by 2003.

A number of smaller cities and historic downtowns have begun work on vintage trolley systems serving their downtown destinations and connecting a number of "people places" together.
To help make these new train systems successful, land-use changes around the stations are necessary to promote dense, mixed-use infill projects. When combined with transit, this is known as (TOD) transit-oriented design and is the ideal form of development. It isn't enough to build only the train systems, as many of the previous generation of train planners did. To realize the full potential of the investment, and to help curb sprawl, comprehensive land-use changes are necessary to go along with the new train systems.

Probably the most impressive part of all this is that in the majority of cases, all the powerful special interests have lined up against these new train systems, trying in vain to prevent them from being built. But even the immense power of these groups cannot stop the vote of the masses. People are just tired of the same old story, being stuck in traffic again.

Andy Kunz is director of town planning for the Urban Resource Group, a division of Kimley-Horn and Associates in Miami Beach. A graduate of the University of Miami's town planning program, Kunz is a new urbanist and a proponent of building new train systems to solve our transportation problems. For more information, visit: www.NewUrbanism.org and www.UrbanResourceGroup.com.