Rail system won't empty the roads
August 30, 1009
If you someday look out the window of a local train taking you into Tampa and see a traffic jam on a highway, would you call the train a failure?
How you answer says a lot about which side you're on in the debate over local rail.
The issue is going to heat up now that it seems likely Hillsborough County commissioners will put a special tax on the 2010 ballot. The actual language is yet to be composed, but the main question for voters will be this: Do you want to increase the local sales tax to help pay for rail and other transportation improvements?
A recent commission meeting on transportation planning gave a preview of a fundamental reservation about the much-needed investment. Commissioner Jim Norman, a longtime rail skeptic, asked how much a line from downtown Tampa to the University area would reduce congestion on some of the county's busiest roads.
Critics of rail proposals around the country typically measure a train's success in traffic counts. By that gauge, critics can call almost all of them boondoggles.
But traffic is the wrong measure. If the train were to reduce traffic significantly, it would mean that the investment probably didn't pay off in new jobs and more business activity. Traffic congestion in a major city is strong evidence rail transit is needed, but that's not to say rail will eliminate rush-hour slowdowns.
For one thing, the train can't help traffic in areas far from the tracks. For another, if rush-hour capacity on the roads does improve when some motorists switch to the train, more road space will be available during peak hours, and other people will adjust their schedules to take advantage of it.
The object of rail isn't just to send more folks longer distances at faster speeds. Cities invest in rail because reliable, clean, speedy transportation makes a city more appealing. Rail helps create more jobs, more services and more entertainment, which are magnets for people from all directions.
Rail can raise property values near stations while encouraging developers to build healthier, walkable neighborhoods.
But more people doing more things means more congestion. And that's good. If you could breeze in and out of a football game at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs would not consider the empty roads any kind of a success.
Many cities have never had much congestion. It's easy to drive around places like Abilene, Wichita and Toledo at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. It's hard to drive around New York City, Chicago and San Francisco at almost any hour, despite their huge investments in rail.
Cities build rail when they realize that tearing down thriving businesses to widen highways doesn't make economic sense. Build enough expressways through a city and you degrade the destination that drivers are trying to reach.
Small, low-traffic towns have their charms, but the most exciting entertainment and best-paying jobs are created in or very near the best, most congested cities.
Dealing with the congestion is a challenge, but it would be self-defeating to try to make the congestion go somewhere else.
A successful rail plan will change where some people want to live, lower the cost and stress of commuting for train passengers, increase urban density near stations and attract top employers.
But traffic, even if the trains run full, will not go away.
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