Sunday, September 19, 1999

Finding light rail parallels


Riding the St. Louis and Dallas trains holds lessons for Cincinnati

BY TANYA ALBERT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Dallas: A light rail train runs through downtown downtown streets on tracks, and is powered by overhead power lines.
(Ernest Coleman photos)
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        It's a $600 million decision: Should Greater Cincinnati invest in light rail?

        As trains move from pipedream to possibility, the answer depends on who you ask.

        Deer Park resident Donna Farrell says that despite promises of preventing gridlock and easing air pollution, people won't ride the train. She fears that in her neighborhood, the tracks would invite crime and would isolate a popular community park.

        “We picked this area on purpose because it is a nice little community,” she said. With trains running through the middle of town, “our community would never be the same.”

        But proponents say as more and more people move into Cincinnati's burgeoning northeast corridor, a light rail system is the only thing that will keep the area moving.

        “Light rail offers the greatest capacity of any (system). You couldn't run that many buses,” said Paul Jablonski, general manager of the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority.

        Despite the difference in views, one thing is clear: Driving around the Tristate is a growing problem. And it promises to get worse. Drivers already share some of the most congested roads in the country. Since the early 1980s, the region's commuters have seen a 200 percent increase in the time they sit in traffic.

TRACKING PLANS
Proposal: An 18-mile light-rail line from Covington to Blue Ash.

Cost: $600 million

Timeline: An undermined funding tax would be presented to voters in 2001. If passed, the first 18 miles could open in 2008.

Future: The initial Covington to Blue Ash line could be expanded to the Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport and Paramount's Kings Island. Eventually, other lines would run east, west, northwest and southeast of the city.

        For a close look at what works and what doesn't, the Enquirer spent a week riding the light rail systems in St. Louis and Dallas. Those cities built their systems a few years ago and ridership now exceeds planners' expectations. The cities faced the same problems Cincinnati leaders are grappling with now: Increasing congestion, suburban sprawl and the threat of tough federal mandates because of unhealthy air quality.

        Greater Cincinnati's $600 million plan was developed by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments (OKI). It calls for an 18-mile line between Blue Ash and Covington. Eventually, planners say, rails could run north, east, south and west from downtown Cincinnati.

        St. Louis and Dallas are already expanding their light rail systems because of ridership needs. Based on more than 120 interviews with riders in those cities, most believe they now have an alternative to their cars that:

        • Gets them where they need to go quicker, or as fast, as their car can.

        • Drops them off steps from their destination.

        • Saves them money on parking, gas and wear-and-tear on the car.

        • Is safe.

        And people who don't ride the system say they would rather drive because it's faster and more convenient. @subhed:St. Louis: Start at airport

        The flight from Cincinnati to St. Louis lands at Lambert Field. Monday morning back-to-work rush hour is over. Half-full white MetroLink trains still hum back and forth to the airport on an elevated track.

        The 17-mile train system runs east, through downtown St. Louis, across the Mississippi River and into East St. Louis, Ill. There are 19 stops along the way.

        The $464 million light rail line doesn't just carry the suburban briefcase-toting crowd to and from their desks every day, a fear some in Greater Cincinnati have about a light rail system.

        More that 30 percent of the daily riders in St. Louis are heading someplace other than work, according to a 1997 report. The same is true with 28 percent of Dallas riders.

        People ride it to go to the zoos, museums, entertainment districts, shopping districts, universities, sports venues and hospital complexes along the lines in the two cities. Similar points of interest would be stops on Cincinnati's initial line.

        The airport at St. Louis has two train stops. Customary knots of business travelers board, choosing the train to get to downtown hotels instead of taking a cab or renting a car.

        A man in a tan T-shirt, with time to kill on a nearly three-hour layover, pays the $3 airport fare just to ride the rails. He leans forward on the seat in front of him and looks out the large picture window that is the top half of the car.

        “I'm just going to see what I can see,” says Brian Latson, 27, of San Diego.

        Two stops later at North Hanley, three passengers leave their car at a park-and-ride lot and board the train for the Casino Queen riverboat in East St. Louis.

        The women could drive there as fast as the train takes them, they say. But the train is easier, more relaxing and it feels safer than driving.

        “I get lost and I like to let somebody else do the navigating,” says Imogene Sheppard, of suburban St. Louis.

        “It's convenient if you want to go to Union Station (to shop) or the casinos or just to go to downtown to have lunch,” her friend Marie Dixon, said from across the aisle. “But don't try to get on this thing at 5 p.m. because you won't find a seat.”

        The MetroLink sways slightly as it speeds down the tracks, sometimes as fast as 55 mph.

        Doctors, nurses and medical students ride the train to and from the major hospitals for $1.25 each way. So do college students, some of them lugging bikes. Grandparents, parents and children ride to St. Louis' Gateway Arch on a last outing before school starts.

        Paul Renaud, 61, is headed downtown with his three grandchildren.

SYSTEMS COMPARED
St. Louis

Metro area population: 2.5 million
Name of the system: MetroLink
Opened: 1993
Operates: Between 5:30 a.m. and 12:30 a.m. daily.
Cost to ride: Adults: $1.25 one-way ticket; $4 one-day pass; $13 weekly pass; $40 monthly pass. Elderly, children and disabled: 60 cents one-way ticket; $6.50 weekly pass; $20 monthly pass
Top speed: 55 mph
Average speed: 20-30 mph
Existing system: 19 stations along 17 miles of track running from East St. Louis to Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.
Cost to build: $464 million. The Federal Transit Administration contributed $348 million. The local match, $116 million, came from the asset value of donated railroad rights-of-way, structures and facilities.
Under construction: 17.4 miles of track with eight stations scheduled to open in 2001. It will extend the system from East St. Louis farther east into St. Clair County, Ill. Cost: $339 million. It is 72 percent federally funded; the remaining 28 percent comes from a half-cent sales tax in St. Clair County.
Annual operating cost: $20.1 million projected for fiscal year 2000.

Dallas

Metro area population: 4.4 million
Name of the system: DART - Dallas Area Rapid Transit
Opened: 1996
Operates: 5:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. daily.
Cost to ride: Adults: $1 single trip; $2 one-day pass; $30 monthly pass. Seniors, disabled, students: 50 cents single trip; $1 one-day pass; $10 monthly pass.
Top speed: 65 mph
Average speed: 25-35 mph
Existing system: 21 stations along 20 miles of track. There are two lines. Both run through downtown. The Red line runs north and southwest from downtown. The Blue line runs south from downtown.
Cost to build: $860 million. 80 percent financed by one-cent sales tax in Dallas and 12 suburbs; 20 percent federal money.
Under construction: $1 billion in extensions. Eleven miles of track with four stations scheduled to open in 2002, extending the system to suburban Garland. Twelve miles of track with eight stations scheduled to open in 2003, extending the system to suburban Plano.
Annual operating cost: $38.5 million projected for fiscal year 2000.

Sources: The World Almanac, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), Bi-State Development Agency.

        They'll get off just outside the shop where he'll have his watch repaired. They'll do their errands without having to drive around to find a parking spot and then pay a fortune for it.

        “I was skeptical about whether I would use it,” Mr. Renaud says, noting he was worried the trains would attract pickpockets and other criminals. “I was wrong. It's a good ride — clean, neat, fast and cheap.”

        Security guards ride the cars. Closed-circuit cameras monitor the platforms. And problems have been minimal. In 1998 there were 13 assaults reported and 19 cases of disturbing the peace.

        About 35 minutes after MetroLink leaves the airport, it arrives downtown. The train runs through an old railroad tunnel and pops above the ground again, giving riders like Mr. Latson a view of the arch before heading across a bridge spanning the Mississippi River.

Beyond expectations
        At 6:30 a.m. the next day, rush hour commuters are less concerned about what they see out the window.

        On the platforms, briefcases are slung over shoulders. Type-A personality commuters have their noses in the newspaper. Business reports are open, yellow highlighters marking key sections.

        Some are engrossed in the latest best-selling paperback. They clutch a steaming cup of coffee in the other hand.

        Type-B personalities use the down-time to listen to music or close their eyes and catnap.

        Pat Simmons of suburban St. Louis drops her car at the 900-car park-and-ride lot and catches the train at North Hanley.

        It would cost the office worker $55 a month to park in downtown St. Louis. A train pass is only $40.

        “It's less wear and tear on your nerves and it's convenient,” she says as her train pulls up to the station.

        Trains come by every seven minutes during rush hour. And every seven minutes there's another 75 to 100 people waiting to board. Use is even heavier in East St. Louis, the busiest station. It's the eastern-most end of the line and served by buses and ample parking.

        Before the day is over, more than 44,000 riders will use MetroLink.

        That's more than triple the initial estimates. Before the train opened in 1993, planners projected 12,000 passengers daily. In the first month, daily ridership hit 30,000. Cincinnati is predicting 21,000 riders daily for its first line.

        The surge in St. Louis' ridership has led to an expansion farther into Illinois, where the line ends now. Another 17.4 miles is under construction. The $339 million project, with eight stations, should open in 2001. After that, another extension will be built west of downtown St. Louis toward Clayton, the region's second-largest job center.

        Back on the existing line, Renee Washington boards at the Central West End stop. She'll drop her children at day care and school, then head to work. She leaves her minivan at home.

        “I don't ride the bus with the kids, but I will ride MetroLink with them,” says the mother of five. She pushes 1-year-old twins in the stroller. Her other children, ages 2, 4, and 5, hold one another's hands as they step on the train. Each of them climbs into a seat.

        “It's easier. It's convenient,” Ms. Washington says.

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St. Louis: DeAndre Sykes, 4, waits as a train pulls into the Central West End station. He and his four siblings go to day care, then his mother Renee Washington goes to work.
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        Some on the train don't agree.

        Toni Miles, of suburban St. Louis, is a registered nurse at Barnes Hospital, just steps from the Central West End station. She takes the train only about six times a year because it doesn't stop close enough to her house and it doesn't save time.

        “If it were more convenient, I would take it all the time,” said Ms. Miles, who rode the train because her car was being repaired.

        Jeanette Wells is on MetroLink only because her car is in the shop. She questions whether St. Louis even needs to spend money on the trains because the roads aren't as congested as they are in other cities like Chicago or Los Angeles. It costs MetroLink about $20 million a year to operate. A mix of fares and federal, state and local tax dollars pay for that.

        Ms. Wells says it takes her about 40 minutes to get downtown by MetroLink. It takes her about 20 minutes by car in light traffic.

        “I always thought that was aggravating,” she says. “I would ride it if it went faster.”

        But drivers can't always count on light traffic. As it is in Cincinnati, one disabled vehicle or fender-bender can make rush hour excruciating.

        And that's why some people like light rail. Traffic doesn't affect it, so commute time is the same every day.
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St. Louis: Transit Service Manager Debbie Morgan works in the MetroLink Command Center.
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Dallas: A Texas flair
        More than 600 miles south of St. Louis, Dallas commuters pack light rail trains during the evening rush hour.

        The reasons people ride, or don't ride, light rail are similar in the two cities. And experts say building a system that gets people where they need to go quickly and cost-effectively will be key to building a successful system in Cincinnati.

        But in looks and feel, St. Louis' and Dallas' systems are different. They reflect the personality of each city. Cincinnati's system would be built to suit the community here.

        St. Louis' system is low-key, a style you would expect in a conservative Midwestern city. Simple concrete slabs with blue shelters serve as stations. At many of the 19 stops, riders go down about two flights of stairs or take an elevator to the platform. White train cars have a simple yellow and red stripe down the side and run below thin power lines.

        Texas' zest for big and bold comes through along the 20 miles of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) track. Yellow and white cars run at street level through the business district. Towers with a yellow dot on top easily guide people to each stop.

        Each Dallas station reflects its neighborhood. The basic structures are the same, but the coloring and flair are unique. The zoo stop has pillars with animal-themed designs; the Mockingbird station has a ribbon design to give the feeling of flight.

        Downtown, Steve Stutsman sits on a granite bench at the more conservative St. Paul stop. The dentist is waiting for his northbound train on the Red line. It runs every 10 minutes during rush hour.

        “I don't know if it's any quicker, but it's a lot more convenient,” says Dr. Stutsman, 48. “And it's less stressful than driving.”

        And more reliable, adds accountant Tracy Hannah, who sits a few seats away.

        “If one car crashes, the whole highway seems to shut down,” says Miss Hannah, pulling her Walkman out of her bag for the ride home.

        “Where I really save time is the time it would take me to walk from where I parked to my building, which was blocks away,” says paralegal Colette Murray. Her stop is steps from her downtown office building.

        Crescent awnings protect people waiting to board from the still-punishing Dallas sun at 5 p.m. But when the train arrives and the doors open, a blast of welcome air-conditioning pours out the door with the riders.

        As Christina Hunn, 22, gets on and out of the heat, she pulls out her counted cross-stitch.

        “I don't get my car in a wreck and I don't have to fight road rage,” the Dallas accountant says as she pulls the thread through the cloth. “When I'm done with a tense day, I get on and cross-stitch and it's like a different world.”

        The train makes a couple more stops downtown, then speeds through a tunnel before popping up again for three more stops. The line ends about 6 miles north of downtown. The last stop is a huge parking lot. The train empties out and the passengers head to their cars to run errands or head home.

        Back downtown, rush hour is thinning out.

        Kathy Leeper is headed to her car after her evening workout. Despite frequent stops downtown and free park-and-ride lots, the train is still not the most convenient way for her to get home.

        “I live close to here and it would take me twice as long to take the train,” the paralegal says. “I avoid rush-hour traffic.”

40,000 trips a day
        By sunset, most of the 9-to-5 crowd is home. Shift workers, those stuck at work late and entertainment seekers sit on the benches at well-lit stations.

        The trains are still fairly full. About 40,000 trips are made each day on the system, which operates from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. But at night, people are more aware of their surroundings than they were earlier in the day. They clutch their bags a little tighter and look to see who is around them.

        “I try to time it so I get down here when the train comes, so I'm not sitting out here too long,” says Deyon Gray. She met a friend for dinner after work and is catching a train for home at 9:15 p.m.

INFOGRAPHIC
What is light rail?
        On the train, police officers make their presence known.

        While St. Louis has security officers and closed-circuit cameras, DART has its own sworn police force.

        Tonight, Officer Alan Miles walks through the train headed south from downtown. He makes spot checks for tickets and chats with passengers.

        Crime isn't rampant on the light rail system. The biggest problem is drunks. More than 300 cases were reported in trains and at stations during the last half of 1998, police said. There were nine robberies and six aggravated assaults during that time.

        But when Dallas surveyed citizens before it opened its system in 1996, people said their main concern was safety. The response was to put at least one police officer on each train.

        “Sometimes I don't feel safe,” says Patricia Terry, of Dallas who was heading home from her job at Children's Medical Center around 9:30 p.m.

        But she felt safe tonight.

        She spent part of her trip talking with Officer Miles.

        The former Dallas city police officer has been with DART for three years. He works the 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift.

        He slides in front of the door, keeping his eye on a rowdy group. He shakes his head at a member of the group who bounces a basketball on the train.

        The man stops.

        It's a pretty routine night.

        The trains start for the day at 5 a.m.

        By 8:30 a.m., the huge lot is full at the Parklane station, Dallas' northernmost station.

        Commuters open newspapers, books and work reports. Others watch baseball scores and news headlines flash up on an electronic billboard in the front of the packed train car.

        Once the train pulls out, riders looking out the heavily tinted windows catch a glimpse of the sea of brake lights on one of the main arteries into downtown Dallas.

        “The aggravation of not being on Central (Expressway) is worth it,” says Adrian Christiano, 58, a downtown law firm receptionist who rides the train every morning. “The car stays in the garage.”

       



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