Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Case For Light Rail in the Lehigh Valley

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Today is the last day for public comment on the LVPC's Surface Transportation Plan,which proposes solutions to our long term transportation problems. Their plan? Make Route 22 wider and all will be well. This myopically fails to consider the realities of both peak oil and global warming,which will dramatically affect our lifestyles, to say nothing of our driving habits. Light rail is summarily dismissed. We're too spread out. No one will ride the rail. But is this true?

Dennis Lieb, a smart growth advocate from Easton, makes the case for light rail in the Valley in his written comments to the LVPC.

The LVPC's Director has claimed for years that any discussion of rail is academic because the Lehigh Valley's population is too dispersed, rendering the economics of rail transit systems a losing proposition. This is a simple-minded and stubborn position. Dozens of quantifiable projects now in operation nationally have shown not only ridership figures well above projections but economic impacts far in excess of anyone's dreams. This economic impact doesn't even begin to tell the whole story. Quality of life issues; the freeing up of discretionary income for needs other than maintaining extra vehicles; improved personal health and safety. These are but a few of the benefits hidden beneath the raw economic data.

Perhaps, instead of using dispersed population as an excuse to avoid rail investments, we should instead embrace the idea. The only way to stop this destructive spread of sprawl and save urban areas is to alter the land-use/ transportation paradigm; install a rail system to mold future development into a compact development model we can be proud of. It is funny that now, in our high-cost/low certainty energy environment, we can claim rail transit to be inefficient and impractical. We all know that the oil, tire and auto-making corporations conspired to eliminate the previous mass transit infrastructure decades ago. But even then, during a time of extremely cheap fuel and a much more rural landscape traversed by multiple transit lines (despite many fewer suburban riders) there was no public outcry to remove the system due to "inefficiency".

The recent disclosure that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey had targeted LVIA on its short list of possible airport expansion sites for JFK, La Guardia and Newark overflow traffic is a telling sign of things to come. The LVIA was discounted as an expansion option in favor of Stewart Airport, 65 miles north of Manhattan, because that site has the possibility of a rail link. With I-80 and I-78 jammed with commuters, the Port Authority realizes that rail is the key. At the same time, LVIA management misguidedly (and without informing the public of its motives) touts Rt 22 expansion as the panacea.

In the absence of any real efforts by LVPC on the issue, local organizations have conducted their own polling among commuters on the initiative of rail transit, recording overwhelming support for the concept. The time has come to act on that support. Ultimately, it is part of the ethical code of conduct for all urban planners to do what is in the best interests of the majority of the community, even if it means ignoring the handful of politically connected movers and shakers who would defend the status quo to further their personal gains.

Although Dennis is right, the LVPC is too closely connected to developers who profit from our remaining green space. He'll be ignored.

But the LVPC is in for a "crude" awakening. We're running out of gas. And if we don't deal with reality, reality will deal with us. If you have a moment, sign the light rail petition for the Lehigh Valley.

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