Light rail would be start of decent public transportation

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 29, 2000

As we drive to the airport in Minneapolis, how I long for a railroad so I could read my book and not worry about the road.

Wednesday, March 29, 2000

As we drive to the airport in Minneapolis, how I long for a railroad so I could read my book and not worry about the road. The longing I feel on the drive there, however, is nothing compared to the terror I feel once I get there. City driving – the speed, the cars cutting in and out of traffic, the not-knowing where I’m going feeling – stinks. Come on Twin Cities, show me the light rail. Bring it on Minnesota Legislature, I can’t wait until the day when I can park my car at the Mall of America, do a little shopping there and then buzz on into town for some exploring via the light rail. Less stress, less pollution, less likelihood of death – all very good reasons in my book.

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Sadly, things aren’t looking too good at the moment for light rail, the House essentially didn’t pass it, the Senate did and now it heads to conference committee. We know Ventura supports it though, so that’s a good sign.

Other than the terror involved in my driving in the Twin Cities, there are several other very good reasons for investing in light rail. Number one, it won’t compete with cars for freeway and highway space. More importantly, a person taking light rail can read a book, listen to headphones, play with a baby or simply check out the scenery – surely a slice of a better quality of life than sitting in a car stuck in traffic every morning and afternoon.

Finally, the state’s proposed maximum contribution of $100 million – which they say won’t increase – captured $274 million in federal funds. That’s tax money paid by Minnesota taxpayers that would have gone to a transportation project in another state.

Granted, even with the federal funds, it will cost more than $446 million, but this is an investment in infrastructure that will help people when gas prices get too high or pollution in the Twin Cities gets too disgusting.

Perhaps if they’d kept the street cars in the first place, we wouldn’t have such an expense. In fact, we might even have a transportation system we could boast about, one that our forefathers could swell up with pride about because visitors would marvel at their foresight, retained when so many around the country were losing any kind of sensible vision. But no, someone had to take a bribe from oil companies and goodness knows who else, and the almighty bus replaced the street cars on the exact same routes.

Light rail presents a solution. Bigger and more highways do not – they make the problem worse.

British author/comedian Ben Elton likened traffic to trash in a monologue.

Elton tells the story of the swing top trash bin in his kitchen. He talks of his pride when the bin is new and the top swings to and fro so nicely, of the pleasures of dropping those first items in. He goes on to explain how that pleasure – hearing things drop down to the bottom – was a rare one, because the bin was always full. He marveled at how much he could jam into the bin, as well as pile around it in those small plastic bags you get so many of at the grocery store these days.

The rubbish seemed to grow exponentially, in accordance to the space it was allowed, he said, describing how he would jump off the top of the fridge to jam more into the bin. (OK, he exaggerated. He’s a comedian.)

Now, do you think if you give him two swing top bins, he’ll become a tidier man?

No, he will merely end up with twice the amount of garbage in his kitchen.

Like Elton’s bins, bigger highways end up just as crowded very quickly.

The answer, the only answer, is decent public transportation, something Austin can take to heart as well.

Light rail is only a beginning.

Jana Peterson’s column appears Wednesdays