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Light rail hits the West ... again.

Light rail hits the West . . . again

What's bigger than a bus, and also moreefficient, nonpolluting, more likely to be cost effective--and certainly more nostalgic? For traffic-choked Western cities, the answer increasingly is the old reliable streetcar or trolley, reborn as "light rail.'

Sacramento's system is the latest: the firsthalf of its 18-mile RT Metro was inaugurated on March 12. Portland started its 15-mile MAX system last September. And by the end of this year, San Jose hopes to finally open the first 6 miles of its Guadalupe Corridor Light Rail Transit.

Add these to other systems that haveopened or are under construction, and at least five Western cities will be running on light rails by the year 2000.

"There's a light-rail revolution,' claimsPortland's Karen Cacy. "Passengers like its smooth ride and dependability. In Portland, people who wouldn't be caught dead on a bus are queuing to ride MAX.'

What, exactly, is "light rail'?

It's simplest to think of light rail as anupdated version of the streetcars our grandparents once rode. While modern designs vary, all light-rail systems are essentially cars or trains powered by electricity from overhead wires.

Portland and Sacramento use European-designedcars that are bigger than the old trolleys--each carries about 170 seated and standing passengers. Padded seats, air conditioning, good lighting, and a smoother, quieter ride make today's trolleys more comfortable, too.

On most systems, rails are at street level,with trains and automobiles often sharing the same road and traffic signals. Indeed, Sacramento's trains go right through a pedestrian mall. This flexible compatibility offers a clue to the real reason for light rail's growing popularity in most cities: cost effectiveness.

A question of cost versus benefit

Heavy-rail systems, like BART in the SanFrancisco Bay Area, need separate roadbeds for safety and efficiency. They also can create substantial disruption during construction. Today only Los Angeles has opted to build a heavy-rail system; its Metro Rail Subway should debut in 1992.

The costs of heavy rail can be staggering.With its tunnels and elevated tracks, BART's 71 miles cost about $25 million per mile to complete in 1974. And Los Angeles is currently estimating a whopping $284 million per mile.

By comparison, Sacramento's light-railsystem is a bargain at only $9.6 million per mile; Portland's cost $14 million per mile. And by funding its trolley without federal help, San Diego was able to build a route to the Mexican border for a mere $7 million per mile.

Light rail can be less expensive than newfreeways. According to planners, Sacramento's per-mile cost was about a third of what a new freeway would have cost. In Portland, the 15-mile route was built at half the cost of a $400 million, 5-mile freeway proposed for east of downtown. Still, light rail is not immune to problems and complaints.

In almost every city, critics have pointedto lost parking and retail business during construction. In a few communities, serious delays, cost overruns, and other financing problems have drawn fire. The overhead wires are unsightly, and routes are inflexible. With the exception of Sacramento, parking at stations is often non-existent or skimpy. Street-level systems can also add to rush-hour congestion in crowded downtowns.

Despite these concerns, once the systemsare up and running, light rail has proven generally popular with riders. Indeed, most cities with it are working on plans to expand their routes.

Portland's MAX: popular with commuters, also a boon for visitors

Along its 15-mile, 27-stop route to Gresham,MAX links several major attractions, and more will be added as projects are completed along the transit corridor.

Downtown stops include Pioneer CourthouseSquare, a plaza with frequent outdoor entertainment, and Yamhill Marketplace, in the Yamhill Historic District.

Surrounding Skidmore Fountain stop is ahistoric district of handsome century-old architecture, shops, cafes, and museums. You'll also find the lively Saturday Market (450 outdoor crafts, food, and art vendors); it reopened on April 4. A block east is mile-long Waterfront Park, with river views, promenades, and grassy expanses for picnicking.

At the end of the line, Gresham is a quietsurprise. Its small-town Main Street, a 15-minute stroll south of Central station, is lined with cafes, antique shops, and small businesses.

Most of Portland's major celebrations--the Rose Festival (June), Waterfront Festival (July), Art Quake and October Fest (September)--happen in parks and squares along the rail line. For a comprehensive list, write to Portland Visitors Bureau, 26 S.W. Salmon St., Portland 97204, or call (503) 222-2223.

MAX has proved so popular that officialshad to increase service shortly after opening. Now trains rumble down the line from 5 A.M. to midnight daily except Sundays, when it's 6:30 A.M. to midnight; trains come every 15 minutes from 5 A.M. to 8 P.M. daily and 10 to 8 Sundays, every half-hour at other times. Downtown businesses hope to have antique trolleys running on the tracks soon.

Before boarding, you buy your ticket froman automated machine. One option: a $1.35 ticket good for 2 1/2 hours of sightseeing on MAX and Tri-Met buses. For a schedule and map, write to Tri-Met, 4012 S.E. 17th Ave., Portland 97202.

Riding the rails in Sacramento: $1 or less buys you a 1 1/2-hour ride

Although RT Metro was still a local noveltyat our deadline, some early riders wonder if it will suffer from its own initial success. Designed as a "trunk' or mainline system with bus feeder lines from neighborhoods, the Metro is already feeling standing-room-only pressure from rush-hour commuters.

That's not surprising. "Our system wasdesigned so that 90 percent of all people working downtown would have a station within three blocks of their office,' states Mike Wiley. "After a year, we expect to average more than 20,000 riders each day, mostly during commute periods.'

The first 9-mile leg runs northeast fromdowntown--with stops on three sides of the State Capitol and along the K Street pedestrian mall; the last three stations are cheek-by-jowl with Interstate 80. The second leg--due to open in September--will lead 9 miles east from downtown, roughly paralleling U.S. 50.

Designed for commuters, the systemdoesn't offer much for visitors, except that it's fun to ride. From parking in Old Sacramento, you can take a motorized "trolley' shuttle (10 to 4 daily; 25 cents), or walk the 1/2 mile up the K Street pedestrian mall to Metro stops at 8th and K near the Capitol. From there, it's an hour ride to the end of the system and back.

RT Metro runs from 6 A.M. to 10 P.M.weekdays, 7 to 8 Saturdays, 8 to 6 Sundays; trains come every 15 minutes at peak times on weekdays, every half-hour at other times.

Fares, with bus transfer option, are $1during peak hours, 85 cents other times. Special 25-cent fares (no transfers) are offered downtown. Buy tickets from vending machines before boarding; keep them until the end of your trip. For a schedule and route map, write to Regional Transit, Box 2110, Sacramento 95810.

Photo: Sacramento Sleek, articulated trolley pulls away from stopnear State Capitol in downtown Sacramento. Up to four cars can be linked into "trains' at rush hours

Photo: San Diego From downtown, car heads to Euclid onsoutheast line that opened last year. Rider buys ticket, boards, rides on honor system

Photo: Portland Stopping next to Pioneer Courthouse Square, MAX shares downtown street with autos and pedestrians. Light rail's ability to blend with different settings appeals to planners
COPYRIGHT 1987 Sunset Publishing Corp.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on other light-rail plans
Date:May 1, 1987
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