Some Rapid Reading About Rapid Transit

(Or, Light Reading About Light Rail)

December 1, 2003 in New Mexico Politics | Comments (0)

The four biggest core cities in the region of the North American Rockies all have electric-powered light rail transit systems. The fifth, Albuquerque, is still totally dependent upon its freeway system, nice as it is.

Why Denver, Salt Lake City, Calgary and Edmonton have LRT systems and Albuquerque does not has to do with Albuquerque’s lagging population growth (please read disclaimer below), deficient state resources and bitter political divisions. But these things are not forever. A little impossible dreaming now will go a long way in the future, when park-and-ride might not be voluntary and park-and-walk might require a respirator.

As to the first factor, the Albuquerque metro area significantly trails Denver and Salt Lake City in population growth. So the pressures for relief from motor vehicle dependency are not as high.

The Rio Grande corridor in central New Mexico does not yet have the traffic nightmares of the Front Range in Colorado or the Wasatch Front in Utah. It is not unusual in either place for six or eight lanes of freeway traffic to come to a dead stop during ever-longer rush “hours.” Long distance drivers learn the hard way to avoid the Interstate highways through both cities.

Fifty years ago the population of Denver was 494,000, Albuquerque was 201,000, and Salt Lake was 189,000. Urban sprawl with multiple centers was just beginning. The three urban areas were still well defined cities with central business districts.

The three are comparable because their growth has been squeezed between mountains and dry plains and because their high altitudes make them extraordinarily sensitive to motor vehicle pollution. Further, their original “downtowns” were on the edge of huge rail yards with transcontinental depots.

By the time of the 1970 Census, New Mexico’s main city fell behind Salt Lake, and Denver shot far ahead. By 2000, Denver-Boulder-Greeley was the nation’s 19th largest metro area at 2.4 million, Ogden-Salt Lake was 35th at 1.3 million, and Albuquerque-Rio Rancho was off the Top-50 scale at 713,000.

Not only that. Albuquerque has now become more of a medium-size city than a big city by comparison with others in the Rocky Mountain region. Rapidly gaining on Albuquerque: Colorado Springs; Boise, Idaho; and Spokane, Wash.

(Disclaimer: When I correctly pointed out this trend in a Journal column just before the 2000 Census, the reaction was personal and negative, as if I were an advocate of uncontrolled urban sprawl, pollution, poverty and crime. A spokesperson for then Mayor Jim Baca told me, off the record, “What’s wrong with no growth?” Novelist John Nichols, a Northern New Mexico expert, ridiculed me by name at an environmentalist conference. Unfair. I am a Westerner. I would rather move than be swarmed by more wealthy immigrants from the East.)

The second reason for the Albuquerque LRT lag is evident by comparison with the two other big cities in the Rocky Mountain region: Calgary and Edmonton in the Canadian province of Alberta. The metro areas have nearly identical populations (955,000 and 964,000), within the range of Albuquerque-Rio Rancho.

The difference is state resources. Alberta has a booming economy based on oil and tar sands, and state money paid the way.

The Edmonton LRT was tunneled underground through the dowtown area, connecting the civic center, state capitol and, across the river on a bridge that also has a pedestrian-bicycle deck, the University of Alberta. The trains are fast, frequent, clean, modern, virtually silent. . . and, in the subway area, free!

The Calgary C-Train system, which I have seen but not ridden, is like the new Denver light rail system, called The Ride, which I rode in October. For someone who grew up in South Denver long ago, the three-year-old line to once-separate Englewood and Littleton is pretty impressive. You can be on 16th Street in the heart of downtown Denver in 25 minutes from the farthest station, passing thousands of frustrated freeway drivers on the way.

The Denver system has two branches that connect downtown. The Southern route runs along Santa Fe Drive, named for the railroad which it closely parallels. The older route connects east Denver with the old Union Station depot, within walking distance of Coors Field.

Salt Lake also has two lines, converging on Temple Square and the Delta Center. From there, one line goes straight south and the other, finished just in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics, goes east to the University of Utah and the University Medical Center.
The technological factors that make the trains work in both cities, as well as Calgary, include electrical power and variable speeds. The power from single overhead cables connected by trolley poles to the cars provides fast acceleration and virtually silent, pollution free motors. And the light three or four-car passenger trains, with human operators, go fast between express stops in isolated corridors in the suburbs and slow where the rails are set in streets downtown.

An economic factor that made the light rail work in Denver and Salt Lake, it seems, was that transportation districts were able to talk the railroads into selling strips of existing right of way. Denver’s 16-mile southern branch is said to have been a bargain at $20 million a mile, complete. Salt Lake’s 15-mile north-south line between downtown and the suburb of Sandy cost about the same, a total $312 million. Federal funding paid 80 per cent.

By comparison, the 2.5-mile east-west line in Salt Lake, which does not run along existing railroad right of way, cost $118.5 million, according to the Utah Transit Authority.

Light rail is good for real estate values. A developer in south Denver recently offered to pay for a station by his holdings. The line revitalized Englewood. Where the old Cinderella shopping center was no fairy tale of success, the Englewood station now connects with a new civic center by a pedestrian bridge of stunning architecture.

At the end of the line, at Mineral Street in Littleton, a huge upscale shopping center has been completed, again linked by a pedestrain bridge over highway traffic. The center includes some trendy restaurants such as Ted Turner’s buffalo place and bars, where, I am told, sports fans can celebrate after games without the risk of drunk driving. Which brings us to Albuquerque.

Mayor Martin Chavez has set a target date for the opening of some sort of rapid transit system by 2006. Experience elsewhere would indicate this date rules out light rail. The Denver project was at least 20 years in the making.

The first political task would be creation of a transit district to bring together the county and municipal governments involved—not easy, since Albuquerque and its surroundings seem to fight about everything else. The West Mesa Neighborhood Association, for example, has already come out against any rapid transit system that would affect land use in its neighborhood.

The Colorado Legislature created the transit district for Denver as early as 1969. The New Mexico Legislature has yet to create one for Albuquerque. In fact, legislators can’t be blamed if, after so many recent politically risky failures, they shun any bill proposing unification of any kind in Bernalillo or Sandoval Counties.

The other impossible-looking hurdle is the cost. Light rail along the so-called Central corridor from Coors to Uptown has been estimated at $350 million to $400 million.

It is significant that Gov. Bill Richardson has climbed aboard the “light rail” train, plunking down $2 million from the Bush tax cut as earnest money and promising more from the state transportation bonding fund, while avoiding the Albuquerque problems all together. What Richardson apparently means by light rail is commuter trains between Belen and Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Albuquerque, mostly on existing track leased from Burlington Northern Santa Fe.

J. D. Arnold, a New Mexico writer with a longtime interest in transportation issues, sums up the trouble with Santa Fe-Albuquerque commuter idea in two words: “La Bajada.”

The grade up the hill south of Santa Fe exceeds the 4 per cent limit for railroads. The transcontinental main line avoids it by looping through Lamy, some 15 miles southeast of Santa Fe, to the Rio Grande plain. But this route is at least half and hour longer than the I-25 drive, says Arnold.

Still, politics is the art of the impossible. Arnold says one valuable option for Albuquerque would be service to the airport along an old railroad easement to Sandia Base. Another would be a link to the airport from the north, serving the sports venues.

And if all other dreams fail, there happens to be a wonderful possibility for light rail demo along the freight spur between Lamy and Santa Fe, now owned by a tourist-dependent railroad called Santa Fe Southern. Arnold points out the various diesel-powered light rail rolling stock now available, including two companies in Spain and one in Colorado. All the Santa Fe LRT would need is paying passengers.