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Heavy Thoughts on Light Rail

I really intended to rant, and "rant" has this nice brash, arrogant feel to it. What a shame I'm so able to see both sides. Maybe I should stick to writing about subjects where I'm dead certain to be right in my well informed opinion. Oh well. For now I'll settle for being informed.

Sometimes when an issue goes on seemingly forever without resolution, there are suspicions about the entrenched interests in the debate, which is a polite way of saying the big money boys must want different things and are holding things up until they get what they want. Certainly the debate over light rail, which was already going when I moved to Minnesota 25 years ago, makes me wonder if we're watching the shadow play of battling big wigs. Sometimes though, we have to admit that issues are unclear and reasonable people can disagree. Too many strong opinions start with "I like my car, so all that makes sense is whatever makes it easier for me to drive," or "The bus system is awful, therefore we need any new transit system, whatever the cost."

The tricky thing about whether the Twin Cities should build light rail is both sides have facts to back them up. One side says roads are very congested and certain to get worse. Undeniable. The other says light rail is expensive to start with and always costs more than projected. Also proven. The first points out that roads are very expensive, and though most people are unaware of the cost of roads while driving, also true. It's true that light rail will require ongoing subsidy, and that the current bus system requires subsidies anyway, and that roads are subsidized for those who travel more expensive roads than what their gas taxes paid for.

If all this stuff is true, why can't we just balance the facts and know precisely what to do? Because we're trying to predict the future, and that's tough. Whether light rail will work or not depends on whether driving gets inconvenient enough to make drivers ride, and that prediction can be thrown by a large change in the number of available parking spaces, or an unforeseen radical change in the price of gas. Did anyone predict in the early 80's that gas would cost the same in the late 90's, and be much cheaper when inflation was figured in? What if demographic changes mean many fewer people traveling the route where light rail is going to go, and many more than the system can handle?

There is one glaring question among all the others, one the powers that be have never addressed: why has no consideration been given to a PRT (personal rapid transit) system? As much as reasonable people may disagree, the whole process is tainted when certain options are ignored. I've heard about PRT from academics, environmentalists, and other interested in urban transit issues, but never a word from the public officials who are making the plans and the decisions.

For those unfamiliar with PRT, which is most people thanks to the scant attention it's received compared to light rail and highways, PRT is something of a combination of cars and rail travel. The cars would hold 2-4 people. Riders specify their destination when they purchase a ticket. The car gets the destination, and takes the traveler anywhere there's a station. The rails would be laid in a grid, probably above ground, and less obtrusive than light right lines, let alone more freeways. Stations would be common, and the trip would be fast because the car stops only at the specified station. The ideal of the system is riders can go where they want when they want instead of having to figure out routes and times, and having to get home before the buses stop running. Meanwhile, there are all the cost advantages of not driving, plus the convenience of stopping only at the destination. According to advocates, it would be far cheaper than a light rail system. Of course, since it hasn't been tried on a large scale yet, there could be lots of undiscovered bugs.

"Could be" isn't a strong case. Other than it hasn't been tried, what are the arguments against it? I haven't heard them, because the powers that be don't have to argue against it. They have to listen to the people who make money off building highways, and the people who would make money off light rail, but what special interest stands behind PRT?

All right, now I'm suspicious.

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