Light Rail’s American Moment

Which U.S. city has spent over $400 million to begin construction of an approved transit system of over 50 miles of rail lines? What other city recently kicked off a $6 billion project to build over 100 miles of new commuter and light rail, nearly quadrupling the size of the existing system?

Charlotte, North Carolina and Denver, Colorado are just two of the unlikely U.S. cities that have made major moves to invest in rail-based public transit recently. In Charlotte, the LYNX Rapid Transit Services will be the first major light rail system in the state when it opens this winter. The product of decades of planning, the system is being linked with re-zoning to accommodate increased density at the route’s stations, and is being tightly linked to other forms of transit. The first line’s Siemens rail cars, seen to the right, are already purchased and undergoing testing. Here’s a map of the approved system:

Charlotte Light Rail Plans

In Denver, after an initiative to expand the existing light rail system failed in 1997, advocates built relationships with nonprofits, businesses, and local governments in the region, holding dozens of community meetings and refining plans. The aggressive community outreach efforts paid off: in November 2006, the multi-billion dollar FasTracks proposal passed and the expansion plans shown on the map below are well under way. (The completed system will have more miles of track than the D.C. Metro) Also below, the photo shows a train pulling into downtown Denver.

Denver Light Rail System

Substantial investment in transit is popping up in other unlikely places.

Phoenix, Arizona is constructing a 20-mile light rail line that passes through Mesa, Tempe, and downtown Phoenix. The initial segment is estimated to cost in excess of $1 billion and will open in 2008, and work has begun to plan additional extensions.

Phoenix Light Rail

Salt Lake City has spent $520 million on a 19-mile system, and voters have approved billions more to double the size of the system. According to the New York Times, the ridership on the system of more than 55,000 a day is exceeding ridership projections.

In Los Angeles, officials have spent billions enhancing public transportation. The Pasadena Metro Gold Line opened in 2003, an Eastside extension will open in 2009, and planners hope yet another line will receive funding. Here’s a map of the current system, which includes light rail and a subway:

LA Rail Map

Houston opened a light rail line in 2004, and San Diego opened an expansion of theirs in 2005. Last November, after years of defeating similar measures, sprawling Kansas City, Missouri approved a sales tax to construct a light rail system, and planning is moving forward on the BeltLine proposal that would encircle Atlanta and link to that city’s MARTA system. In the Washington, D.C. region, new rail projects are still in the planning stages. Although state officials delayed applying for federal funds until next year, with a pro-transit governor supporters are optimistic the D.C.-area Purple Line will finally go forward. Planning is underway for streetcars along Arlington’s Columbia Pike as well as the return of streetcars to D.C. streets.

To be sure, significant challenges face public transit in these cities, and even when this investment transit will remain practical for too few commuters. Additionally, dense development at transit stations can take decades to materialize, and the systems can be expensive to operate and maintain. Nonetheless, many of these systems are substantial, metropolitan-wide systems connected both to other transit modes and activity centers, and will create a real alternative to driving for many.

> Charlotte Area Transit System
> Charlotte Observer: “The Other Argument for Light Rail
> Denver Regional Transportation District – FasTrack Project
> ValleyMetro (Phoenix)
> Utah Transit Authority
> NYTimes: A Rail Line Drives Development in Utah
> The Atlanta BeltLine Partnership
> Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance
> Light Rail Now!

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. we’re really excited in my NE neighborhood. they’re already laying down the electrical system all down H street NE in preparation for the light rail to union station. it’ll be nice for dc to once again have the rail system that it had way back when the population density wasn’t even close to what we have now.

  2. you need to read Belmont… I have never been to Denver, but I was distressed to read recently that their LFR system will use a lot of freeway alignments, which means that the transit system will be disconnected from places, a killer of success usually.

    And the numbers for systems in Dallas, Utah, even Portland, aren’t all that great

    It’s all about compact development, density, and access to attractive places. Otherwise it’s all about polycentricity.

  3. In response to Richard’s comments on the numbers, Utah and Dallas only have two lines each. Utah has plans for four new lines and Dallas has two under construction. Portland gets 102,000 riders a day. That’s small compared to the Metro in Washington (206 Miles, 900,000 riders q1 07), but they have 4 light rail lines and a streetcar (97 Miles) instead of all heavy rail. As Richard says, its all about compact development and density but in order to serve it you have to pay for it. Subway tunnels like DC’s aren’t being built today because of their expense. You get what you pay for.

  4. Except who likes subways? I mean really. Perhaps I’ve just lived in too many places that had surface transit — Chicago, San Francisco — but being underground totally disconnects you from the place. And SF has proper has the most used system in the country if you look at riders specifically for the city and county of SF. I don’t know why people get so excited about the metro. I think it’s very pretty but is not usable to get anywhere that people work or live. And so it fails at that. The real sign is what are the off peak numbers. How crowded is the system on a Saturday. And I don’t see it.

  5. I live in Kansas and needless to say I am disappointed that even though we have voted for light rail our city council has torpedoed the project for now.

    I wish we had the planning and forethought of Denver or Charlotte, or even Saint Louis when it come to transit alternatives.

    It is clear that cities with good mass transit are more progressive, and good transit systems spur development.

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  8. In Arizona we are ready for our Light Rail system. I personally can’t wait. Love your blog!!

    And Basil, I used to live in Kansas City before Phoenix, AZ… and the counsel always seems to shoot themselves in the foot there! It would have been nice if they would have had a Light Rail system from the Center to Westport to the casinos and also connecting the airport at least!! That would have given them a revenue boost!!

  9. As a Dutchman living in England (where transport in both countries is quite good) with relations in the States, I applaud the efforts to build and expand light rail/transit systems in the United States. Perhaps the Americans are coming to realize the vast benefits of dynamic public transport. With Obama at the helm (soon), perhaps the American government will finally provide the necessary financial support for mass transit across the US.

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