Sunday, October 27, 2002

Light rail


How do we train people to like trains?

map

I'm having a hard time getting on track for light rail in Hamilton County.

That's quite a confession coming from someone who spent most of her childhood and teenage years on trains, buses and subways.

In Philadelphia, where my sisters and I attended high school downtown, I developed a daily dependence on and confidence in mass transit. On various elevated trains and buses, I ranged far beyond my own low-income corner of the world. I gained an appreciation for the larger community and a broader vision for my own future.

Now I no longer depend on public transportation, but I'm still a big advocate.

I'd like to see Cincinnati's buses serve more residents who can't afford their own cars or whose age or disability prevents them from driving.

With each new road or highway lane we add, I can see more people finding reasons to use them and the traffic jams getting worse.

Still, I hesitate to "get on board" Issue 7's bandwagon, mainly because I don't trust its price tag.

If approved by Hamilton County voters this Nov. 5, Issue 7 would raise the county's sales tax by half a cent, to 6.5 cents, and direct that money to a 30-year, $2.7 billion transportation plan.

Most of it, $2.6 billion, would fund a 60-mile, light rail system of electric trains. The rest, $100 million, would extend Metro's bus system.

New routes

Bus expansion is a no-brainer. Advocates of the system say nearly one in four Cincinnatians doesn't own a car. The bus system carries 75,000 commuters a day, but could easily win 15,000 to 20,000 more with more routes.

The expansion, beginning next year, would increase Metro's bus and paratransit fleet from 483 to about 583.

Metro would offer east-west routes across Hamilton County, creating more access from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Right now, Metro's routes look like spokes in a wheel, converging on Cincinnati's downtown.

The expansion would create cross-town hubs, so that a nurse living in Deer Park who works on Pill Hill need not go downtown first.

The bus plan makes sense. Its cost and revenue projections are based on existing fare-box figures.

Untried numbers

Too bad the plan is linked to the light rail proposal.

The rail plan would create five new light rail lines cutting through Hamilton County by 2025, mostly parallel to busy interstates. Also proposed are a trolley and some heavier-duty commuter lines.

Only one of the light rail routes - the one along Interstate 71 - has been studied and engineered enough for solid cost estimates.

Some cost questions have been addressed by planners. Large chunks of right-of-way and railway have been secured or identified. And planners ditched the idea of digging a tunnel under Mount Auburn.

But we still can't be sure that over 30 years, construction costs won't climb.

Even if they don't, we can't tell yet if light rail is a bargain because we can't predict ridership.

The rail plan projects 90,000 riders in Hamilton County. It's not good enough if they all come from buses.

How many Cincinnatians will leave their cars and car stereos at home for a light rail commute that may not get them to work any faster?

In this town, habits die hard. People are used to moderate traffic jams and construction cones. Few, I sense, share my experience and fondness for public transportation.

So, how will we train them all to take the train?

Email damos@enquirer.com or phone 768-8395.




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