Talk to me in 40 years

The funny thing about light rail is that, from a distance, it can look like a stunning success. After all, about two-dozen cities have it, and most of those cities have plans for more lines. No wonder cities without rail point to such rapid growth as proof of success. These cities are now lining up to get their share of federal dough to build their own rail systems. But it’s not enough to say “everyone else is doing it, so we should, too.” Looking closely you find that even in the face of failure, light rail is still able to expand. Santa Clara County in California is an interesting case in point. From the Mercury News (sorry, no link): Studies have shown that light rail in Santa Clara County costs more and is among the slowest of any comparable system in the country. Still, millions are being invested in a line to Campbell that will open in 2006, and studies are under way to extend trains to Eastridge Shopping Center and down Capitol Expressway to Highway 87. Future lines could be scratched if riders don’t flock to the line about to open, making this a possible litmus test for light rail The response from a transit official isn’t exactly comforting: “Other system have been built out over decades, 50 to 60 years,” [Chief Construction Officer Jack] Collins said. “We still have a long way to go. The city needs to mature. Land-use changes take time to occur and there’s still very low density throughout the valley. “When you compare San Jose to cities like Boston and Philadelphia, they have density that is a lot higher. That is where your ridership comes from — people living close to transit. Come back in 40 years and then maybe we can write a story on what success there has been.” In other words Santa Clara residents should just trust their planners and sit tight for another 40 years or so. I wonder what public support would have been if, from the beginning, people were told this sort of plan might take a half-century to “mature.”