Monday, March 27, 1998
We should get aboard light rail

The Cincinnati Enquirer

After years of discussion, a proposal to build a 44-mile commuter train line from Paramount's Kings Island, through downtown and out to the airport, took a small step forward this week.

Two votes - one by the OKI Regional Council of Governments and the other by Cincinnati's City Council - named light rail as the best solution to the area's future mass transit needs. The votes also called for further study.

The just-approved preliminary environmental and engineering studies could take two years. Construction could easily eat up another six years. The entire project's estimated price tag is $1.1 billion. So we're talking a lot of time and money.

But I think light rail is worth it, and we should have the patience and persistence to see it through. Over time, it will help clean the air, spur downtown development and change the way we live, work and play.

I agree with Mike Bernick, author of the book, Transit Villages in the 21st Century. In a call this week, he told me light rail is ''a long-term investment in a region's quality of life.'' He said it comes down to this: ''Do you want life to improve or see it slowly fray at the edges?''

Two reasons

After talking with experts, reading reports and following the local debates, this is why I think light rail is a good idea:

  • Cleaner air: An estimated 30,000 people will ride the light-rail line every day. If Greater Cincinnati is like St. Louis - whose commuter rail system opened in 1993 - 80% of those riders will be former commuters who used to drive, by themselves, to work. That translates to 24,000 fewer cars on the roads every day. In a year, that's 218,400 pounds of hydrocarbons, 1.5 million pounds of carbon monoxide and 117,600 pounds of nitrogen oxide - the basic ingredients of smog - NOT going into our air.

  • Downtown development: Since Portland, Oregon, opened its light-rail system in 1986, $396 million in downtown development has sprung up along the rail line. We keep talking about revitalizing downtown Cincinnati. Light rail could be the ticket.

    As would be the case in Cincinnati, St. Louis' MetroLink rail line runs from the airport to a booming area in the burbs far from downtown. It covers several counties and takes in two states.

    When the $464 million system opened, projections pegged weekday ridership at 12,000. ''Critics called it a boondoggle, a dodo, a pork-barrel project,'' said Linda Hancock, MetroLink's director of communications.

    ''The critics said nobody would ride it,'' recalled Paul Jablonski, general manager of Cincinnati's Metro bus system. ''St. Louis was like Cincinnati. It was an old, settled, conservative city in the Midwest with no recent history of light rail.''

    The critics were wrong. Today, weekday ridership for St. Louis' MetroLink is 44,000 a day.

    Uneasy riders

    Not everyone, I realize, will want to ride light rail. Nor will they be wild about being taxed to pay for it.

    Some people won't be able to end their love affair with the car. Others will look at the protracted negotiations over the two stadiums and their ever-rising price tags. They'll see light rail as a headache no one needs.

    Still others will just stare blankly through their windshield as they zoom down the highway and not think about what's down the road. As long as they can drive to work, they figure, who needs a train? ''Light rail is a more important long-term investment for the future than building new stadiums or highways,'' Mike Bernick said.

    ''A stadium's life span is 20 years, like a highway. But a light-rail system can last for 100 years. It can affect how your region grows and prospers for generations to come.''

    Light rail's greatest challenge might not be its price tag but its insistence that we must look ahead and commit to a long-term solution.

    I don't think we're very good at that kind of planning these days. As time moves faster, we seem less able - or willing - to think ahead. But in this case we must.

    Light rail is a big, complex answer to a lot of our problems. But it's also a big, complex route to a better future. We must get aboard now.

    Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.