Friday, November 6, 2009

Phoenix makes the case for Dane County rail

Last night I sat through the entire Dane County Board meeting, which lasted until 1:30 AM, and heard many concerns about the RTA being formed. I'm not going to go on a rant yet, as I don't want my first newsy blog post to be that tone, but more will come later.

However, one of the common complaints was that Dane County/Madison wasn't dense enough or big enough to support rail. (We still don't know whether rail will come about - the RTA could end up being bus only - but everyone seems to focus on the rail component.) Several people have told me about an interesting article in the NY Times about the new light rail system in Phoenix.
Phoenix is known as a sprawling, decentralized, and auto-centric city. But what do you know, the rail system has not only been a great success, they are now thinking of expanding it. And one of the most interesting aspects of the ridership is that work trips are not the predominant use, unlike other cities. People are using the train to go out in the evening, access downtown on weekends, shop, and attend sporting events at the University.

Hmmm... sporting events at the University. And the proposed Dane County rail line would go right by both the Kohl Center and Camp Randall. Have you ever seen University Ave and Johnson St when there's a big event?

Accessing downtown events? Shopping? Dinner after work or brunch on the weekends? Well, what do you know, the proposed train will go within blocks of downtown Middleton, Capital Brewery, Greenway Station, Hilldale, Regent & Monroe, State St, the Capitol Square, Monona Terrace, Willy St, and Schenk-Atwood (if the Sun Prairie alternative is picked) - all hopping with events, shops, bars, and restaurants.

Here are a few choice quotes from the article:
Among the many detractors — and they were multitudinous — who thought a light rail line in this sprawling city would be a riderless $1 billion failure was Starlee Rhoades, the spokeswoman for the Goldwater Institute, a vocal critic of the rail’s expense. “I’ve taken it,” Ms. Rhoades said, slightly sheepishly. “It’s useful.”

So, here we have a city that everyone describes as "sprawling," and even the conservative critics admit that they use the rail line and like it.
“It is bringing us new customers who didn’t have time to get in the car and drive out here before,” said Joel Miller, a co-owner of Maizies Cafe and Bistro, which sits right along the rail line.
The gaggle of light rail users — including Arizona State University students, who use a line that connects its Tempe campus with the downtown campus — have given a small part of the city a new, dense connectivity that was more or less unheard of in the city two years ago. Pub crawls along the light rail have become a weekend staple, and restaurants have seen new customers from outside the neighborhood popping in off the line for brunch on the weekends.
Madison's downtown is already denser than Phoenix, but what this shows is that even a city that isn't already dense can benefit from having a rail line. it can drive development. And that's what many critics don't understand. They say that rail lines can't be moved, but bus lines can, and they see that as an advantage, citing "flexibility." But the reason that rail drives intense development more than a bus line is because it won't be moved. Business investors, developers, condo buyers, and executives looking for a place to locate know that there will be a train close to their site. It's not going away, and there will be people getting on and off the train on a regular basis at their doorstep.

The article goes on to say:
In a city with low density, miles of suburban sprawl to the east and west of downtown and a historical lack of passion for public transportation, the rail line, one of the nation’s 36 systems, seemed like a white elephant.


Since 2001, when the tax for the new rail line was approved, there has been about $5 billion in public and private investment — $3.5 billion of it private — around the site of the light rail, the city’s development agency spokesman said.
The Phoenix rail line cost $1.4 billion dollars, far more than the proposed Dane County rail line, in part because we already have access to and rail on the right of way, the most expensive portion of developing a rail system. Yet despite the cost, $5 billion has been in vested in the area in just eight years, the vast majority of it private investment.

Build it, and not only will the riders come, but so will the private investment.

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