Oct. 18, 2003, 9:33PM

From coast to coast, rail tales offer contrasts

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

SALT LAKE CITY -- With a major sporting event just around the corner, work crews are everywhere patching torn-up streets, scrambling to complete new buildings and laying miles of tracks for sleek new trains to ferry the anticipated crowds.

Sound familiar? Such was the scene in Utah's capital two years ago as it hurried to pretty itself in time for the 2002 Winter Olympics. The rush resembled the frenzy now occurring in Houston, which is hosting the 2004 Super Bowl and wants to show itself off.

Salt Lake City is the most recent U.S. city to open a light rail system. The first TRAX trains began running in 1999 after an intense political debate that mirrors the fight in Houston. But after the games were over, the city seems to have reached a consensus that rail is an important part of its transportation network.

We are on the cusp here in Salt Lake City of a very exciting advance in terms of public transportation, not only helping clean up the air and saving the destruction of our open spaces but providing the mobility freedom, said Mayor Rocky Anderson. We're providing this inspiration for people throughout the country. They are looking at Salt Lake City, marveling at the great public support we now have.

Last month, the Utah Transit Authority opened the third segment of TRAX. Ridership on the first two segments has been much higher than projected, downtown development is picking up -- thanks in part to the Olympics boost -- and riders rave about the inexpensive, stress-free commute.

But light rail's record in 18 U.S. cities is a mixed bag, making it difficult for Houston voters to predict what will happen if they approve Metro's Nov. 4 transit-expansion referendum. The centerpiece is a $640 million bond issue to accelerate construction of the next 22 miles of light rail, additions to the 7 1/2-mile line along the Main Street corridor that is scheduled to open a month before the Feb. 1 Super Bowl.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority and its supporters tout numerous benefits that light rail can produce, including the potential to change the shape of future Houston development. They envision an Inner Loop that sprouts "urban villages" -- New York-style, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods along the tracks where residents can move around the city without a car.

Rail opponents dismiss this as fantasy, arguing that Houstonians love their vehicles and that spreading people out keeps housing costs down. Metro's proposed trains cost too much and will not attract enough riders to reduce congestion or change the city, they say.

So while proponents around the country label light rail a tremendous success, critics deride it as an utter failure. Deciding who is right might depend on where you look.

When comparing light rail systems, seven, including Salt Lake City's, stand out as success stories. Five boast decent ridership and benefits to the community, but leave residents with a sense there should be more. In six cities, such as Buffalo, N.Y., the systems can be regarded as failures.

But even the successes are born of strife, as in Los Angeles, where constant political wrangling, major cost overruns and slow trains make many continue to question whether rail transit is worth it.

In 1992, Salt Lake City voters rejected a plan to double the Utah Transit Authority's one-fourth-cent sales tax to fund light rail. UTA proceeded to cobble together local money and get Utah's congressional delegation to obtain 80 percent federal funding. The first line, 15 miles between downtown and the suburb of Sandy, opened in 1999.

"From that moment on, the entire community has embraced public transit," said John Inglish, UTA's general manager. "We're now enjoying the most amazing renaissance in our community that I would not have imagined 10 years ago."

Skeptics such as James Grisso, doubtful the city of 182,000 could support light rail, were surprised at its success.

"People underestimated the value of this system," said Grisso, who voted against the 1992 referendum but now rides TRAX daily to the University of Utah.

Euphoric at its sudden popularity, UTA went back to the voters in 2000 and secured the extra quarter-cent.

Flush with new tax revenue, the authority scrambled to finish its second segment between downtown and the university in time for the Olympics. Residents saw hundreds of thousands ride the transit system during the 17-day games, sparking more interest.

Last month, UTA opened the final piece of the Red Line to the university's medical center. Numerous local dignitaries joined some 300 spectators for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. Inglish noted that UTA carries more than 20 percent of trips to the university, which "is taking out thousands of parking spaces and converting them to buildings."

The rail has helped attract some new investment, most notably The Gateway, which has reclaimed downtown's western industrial reaches. The outdoor shopping mall is next to the Delta Center, where both rail lines end. A seven-story, 330-unit apartment complex is attached to the mall, and a 12-story, 152-condominium tower is going up.

UTA is examining several corridors for future expansion and is considering asking voters to double its tax again, to a full cent.

Bill Millnar, president of the American Public Transportation Association, which held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City last month, said Houston voters could look at Metro's rail proposal as too small. But as Salt Lake City demonstrates, he said, you have to start somewhere.

"These are networks and links," Millnar said. "You can't build the third link unless you built the second link unless you built the first link."

Just about every rider interviewed onboard TRAX trains spoke proudly of their light rail.

"You definitely want it," Connie Yates said to Houston voters as her Blue Line train carried her at 55 mph toward a Park & Ride lot, from which she would drive the last six miles to home. "The people who swore they would never ride it, that it was just the biggest waste of time, I have had personal comments from them saying that they have sold cars because they didn't need them anymore because they ride this faithfully."

Light rail's story is not so cheery everywhere, though. In Buffalo, the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority ran out of money halfway through construction of its Main Street light rail line in 1985 and has never been able to come up with the cash or political support to extend the six-mile chunk it ended up with.

Buffalo is the only U.S. city to build a modern light rail line and never expand it. But if Houston voters reject Metro's Nov. 4 referendum, the Bayou City could share that distinction.

The city, on the shore of Lake Erie, had a 35-mile system plan when construction began in the 1970s. The first line was to travel 12 miles from the harbor through downtown to the State University of New York at Buffalo's main campus in suburban Amherst. When the NFTA ran out of money and federal grants dried up, the project was stopped at the university's smaller south campus just inside the city limits.

"It could have been a catalyst to really change the face of downtown if they built the spurs to the outlying communities," said Mayor Anthony Masiello. "Without the spurs, this hasn't been successful. It hasn't generated the private-sector investment or the critical mass it was envisioned to do.

"If we had known that that's all we would have gotten, the six-mile main trunk, then we would have never done this."

Buffalo, current population 288,000, had an ambitious plan two decades ago. It closed the heart of Main Street to vehicle traffic and turned it into a mile-long pedestrian mall with trains running through the middle. But the expected revitalization -- thousands of apartments, new office towers, department stores -- never materialized, and the grand idea is about to be abandoned.

"We lost the momentum that the initial opening had," Masiello said. "We are now looking at ways to restore vehicle traffic to Main Street."

Some have called for ripping up the train tracks, labeling light rail a dismal failure. But Lawrence Meckler, NFTA executive director, said that would be going too far. He noted that the train carries 21,700 riders a day and would take a lot of buses to replace. And five miles of the tracks are in a subway, where the train travels at a greater speed.

"I still think the Metro Rail is a positive," Meckler said. "We see it as successful, popular and safe. It moves people. ... For its length, it is one of the most heavily used systems in the country."

But, he admitted, "It hasn't worked out the way the planners thought it would."

Rail proponents point out that downtown Buffalo's woes cannot be solely blamed on the addition of train tracks. Buffalo's economy has been in a steep slide for decades as the steel mills that fueled employment shuttered one by one. The city has lost half its population since 1950, leading to declining property values and a diminished tax base.

The mayor said it proved impossible to sell more rail in a city that has no traffic problem and is under the scrutiny of a financial control board.

"If it's done right, it will work well for Houston," Masiello said. "If Houston is in a growth mode, then you're going to have to deal with these problems sooner or later. But will Houstonians give up their cars? I'm not sure they will."

Buffalo-area residents said the short line is an embarrassing symbol of their city's decline, and they were split on whether NFTA should expand it.

"This is a comfortable way to move people," Bruce Weikleenget of Amherst said while taking the train home after jury duty. "It should go farther."

Weikleenget, a former Houston resident, said he would vote for Metro's plan if he still lived in Houston.

"I know what it's like with all the freeways down there," he said. "They need a way to move people faster."

The battle over rail has been waged for three decades in Houston. But if there's one place that can top the nasty transit politics, it's Los Angeles. The City of Angels is often compared to the Bayou City, sort of like a big brother of urban sprawl, gigantic freeways, traffic congestion, air pollution and automobile dependency.

The key difference is that since 1990, California's largest city has opened 56 miles of light rail, a 16-mile subway and a six-county commuter rail system. The latest light rail segment, the Gold Line to Pasadena, opened in July.

Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority trains carry nearly a quarter-million riders a day, and the Metrolink commuter lines ferry 35,000 passengers to and from distant suburbs. To stand in Union Station during the afternoon rush is to risk being knocked over by a horde of commuters scrambling out of the subway to catch one of the double-decker Metrolink trains.

"For those of us who are coming in from the valleys, this is actually much faster and easier for us than sitting on the freeway," said Jerri Potras, en route home to the San Gabriel Valley. "Give it a try. It's wonderful."

It's a sight many in Los Angeles still can't believe.

"We used to hear, `Nobody will ride rail in L.A.' That voice is silent," said Roger Christiansen, a transit activist who serves on the MTA's Citizens Advisory Council. "Rail has changed Los Angeles. It has made the city much more walkable, much more accessible."

Still, the 72-mile local rail system covers only a piece of the nation's most populous county, and its impact on traffic is arguable.

"We're not offering a cure for congestion," Christiansen said. "We're offering an alternative, a pleasant alternative."

The path to rail in the city where traffic is the nation's worst has been anything but pleasant, however. Start-up in the 1990s was a disaster, with every line costing several times the initial budget and being completed years late. The MTA halted work on the Gold Line in 1998, and the state created a special authority to finish it.

Roger Snoble, the CEO lured recently from Dallas, appears to have turned things around. But despite the progress, rail critics still abound. They argue, among other things, that the high cost of rail hurts the bus system. The MTA is under a 1996 court order to improve bus service.

"The cost of one rail line absorbs the subsidy that could serve many, many bus lines," said Jim Moore, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Southern California. "You invest in rail, you reduce total transit ridership. It happened in Miami, it happened here, and it will happen in Houston."

John Catoe, MTA's deputy CEO, acknowledged that the bus system was neglected. But, he said, the authority has made major improvements, including the recent launch of six long-distance rapid bus lines that are "having a good impact on congestion and traffic movement."

Tom Rubin, a former L.A. transit executive turned consultant, said the new buses are more efficient than the rail lines, but people are not about to give up their cars.

"Keep spending the money on roads," he said. "That's what's carrying well over 95 percent of all person trips and 100 percent of the freight trips."

Those riding the trains mostly favor transit expansion over more roads, but they question how well MTA has done to date.

Tony Banash, who makes a two-hour commute between Long Beach and the San Fernando Valley on two trains and a bus, said Houston voters shouldn't support a bad plan. The Blue Line, taking an hour to cover its 22-mile route, resembles the system Metro is planning. The Green and Gold lines, on the other hand, mostly have an exclusive right of way and travel much faster.

"The street running has been an endless nightmare," Banash said as his Blue Line train crawled through dilapidated neighborhoods south of downtown L.A. "Don't build it in the street."