Obama turns to light rail to salvage transit legacy

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Republicans have been largely successful in stymieing President Obama's plans to leave behind a legacy of high-speed railways, but Obama's second term could end up being remembered for a boon in light rail and streetcar construction.

Obama spoke frequently in his first term about developing a nationwide network of high-speed railways that could eventually grow to rival the interstate highway system. He included $8 billion in his 2009 economic stimulus package for high-speed rail lines, but Republican governors in states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida rejected the money.

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However, while the GOP was training its focus on halting high-speed railways, several cities began constructing light rail and streetcar systems with the help of Obama's transportation department.

Obama touted one such DOT-assisted light rail expansion during a trip to St. Paul, Minn. this week to push for a new round of congressional transportation spending.

“I just had a chance to take a look at some of those spiffy new trains,” he said of the expansion of Minneapolis’ Metro light rail system to St. Paul, which is scheduled to open in June.

“They are nice and they’re energy efficient,” Obama said of the Minneapolis light rail cars. “They’re going to be reliable. You can get from one downtown to the other in a little over 30 minutes instead of when it’s snowing being in traffic for two hours."

Light railways and streetcars emerged in the 1980's and 1990's as a cost-effective alternative to building "heavy rail" subway systems like Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail. Light railways are generally operated aboveground, unlike subway systems that require tunnels, and they usually run shorter trains.

Streetcars often use similar train cars to light railways, but they usually operate in existing traffic lanes, so they do not require as many land acquisitions to build.

Both light railways and streetcars are typically powered by overhead power lines instead of electrified third rails on train tracks like subways.
 
In addition to Minneapolis and St. Paul, cities such as Charlotte, Dallas and Los Angeles are currently building new light rail lines. Washington, D.C. and Atlanta are additionally planning new streetcar lines, as is Charlotte.

Obama's transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx, was a member of Charlotte’s city council when that city opened its light rail line in 2007, and he pushed to expand the system as mayor.

Foxx regularly touts the success of Charlotte's LYNX light railway when he is arguing now for increasing transportation funding.

The DOT chief maintains that the Obama administration has not given up on high-speed rail though. 

"2014 is shaping up to be our busiest construction year since our high-performance rail program began," Foxx said in a speech to the U.S. High Speed Rail Association this week.

"Right now, 47 projects representing $4.4 billion are either under construction or are about to be," Foxx continued. 

Foxx said funding from the Obama administration helped pay for doubling the amount of railways in U.S. that can operate at speeds between 90 and 125 miles-per-hour, though Republicans have disputed the definition of trains that run that fast as high-speed.

The GOP argues that true high-speed rails are capable of running over 200 miles-per-hour, citing popular fast trains in European nations.  Republicans have also sought to cut off funding for a proposed high-speed railway in California for which the Obama administration has contributed more than $3 billion, expressing doubt about cost and ridership estimates.

Despite the GOP’s objections to its high-speed rail plans, Foxx said the Obama administration has drastically increased the availability of faster trains in the U.S.

“Over the past five years, we’ve invested more than $12 billion in high-performance rail," Foxx said. "Our High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail program is the largest grant program for passenger rail in our nation’s history. Compared to 2009, over 24 million more Americans – a population about as big as Texas’ – now have access to upgraded rail service – or soon will."

Eno Center for Transportation President Joshua Schank said the development of light railways under Obama has been less contentious because they are generally cheaper to build. 

“The reason they’re able to do this is that it’s not very much money, compared to high-speed rail,” Schank said. “Trolleys [and streetcars] don’t even have their own right-of-way. That’s the most expensive thing about transportation projects. High-speed railways are hugely expensive.”

Schank added that many cities’ light rail proposals are able to qualify for the Transportation Department’s "new starts" program that allows local governments to apply for matching funds to get new projects off of the ground quickly because their construction costs are lower than other types of railways. 

Schank said the "new starts" development began before Obama first took office.

But he said the Obama administration’s push for light rails and streetcars has been quietly effective, however.

“It’s really interesting how they’ve kind of snuck it under the radar,” he said. “They cobbled together some existing funds and got some trolleys going.” 

In his speech touting the new Minneapolis-to-St. Paul light railway this week, Obama said he was for expanded public transportation access in whatever form is possible.

“More Americans should have access to the kind of efficient, affordable transit you’re going to have with the Green Line,” Obama said during his appearance at St. Paul’s Union Depot train station.

“There’s no faster way or better way for Congress to create jobs right now and to grow our economy right now, and have a positive impact on our economy for decades, than if we start more projects and finish more projects like this one,” Obama said.