Archives for the month of: November, 2009

My wife and I experienced a rarity recently, namely, the opportunity for some quality time alone away from family. We chose Reno as our getaway destination for its convenience and the scenic drive there. Reno has become familiar territory having lived in Carson City, its neighboring city to the South for a number of years

One of our favorite places to stop when returning to the area is a specialty gift store called Purple Avocado. the owners Sue and Stan Jones are salt-of-the-earth people and great ambassadors for  Northern Nevada. They’re also a great source of information regarding new economic development activity in the region.

On this most recent trip, Stan quickly brought me up to speed on the biggest news to hit Reno years—the new Triple-A baseball park and entertainment district in the heart of downtown. And as luck would have it, Harrah’s Casino, our hotel for the evening, ended up being just a stones throw away from  it.

The baseball park is the new home of the Reno Ace’s, the minor league affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. It has already been a major boom to the sagging Reno economy, attracting nearly a half-a-million people for baseball games this past season. The nearby Reno Entertainment District is also in its early stages of development. When completed in 2010, it will feature a bustling array of retail, dining and nightlife venues.

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The New Reno Aces Ballpark

This is all good news for downtown Reno as it struggles to regain traction from the stubborn economic downturn. Evidence of the areas declining fortunes is quite evident as one drives along Virginia Street through the main casino corridor.  Coexisting amid the bright lights of Harrah’s, Silver Legacy, Eldorado, Circus Circus and other gambling hotspots are boarded up buildings, seedy motels and other structures which have fallen into a state of disrepair. The streets have a unkempt feel about them and seem to be a magnet to a growing population of individuals who display various social disorders.

A decline in tourism has especially affected the hotel and casino industry in Reno resulting in millions of dollars in losses to the local economy. Much of this is due to a hangover among tourists in neighboring California, whose wallets have tightened is response to atrocious economic fortunes in that state. In fact one-third of the weekend tourists in Reno traditionally hail from the Golden State.

Not long ago Reno was brimming with abundant possibilities.  Much of this was a manifestation of its position as the second largest city in the fastest growing state in the nation. Tales abound of how companies were pulling up stakes to move from neighboring California to the tax favorable Nevada. The housing industry was bustling and the casino industry was holding its own despite competition from neighboring locales.

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The Heart of Downtown Reno

Now Reno is firmly enmeshed in a state of recovery. And fortunately for downtown, hopeful signs are beginning to surface.  Indicators include residential developments such as The Palladio and The Montage, which have attract new residents to the central-core. The Reno Riverwalk District also continues to evolve in its importance as an outdoor lifestyle amenity, attracting locals and visitors alike. And plans were recently announced regarding a series of new streetcar lines, including an estimated $84 million dollar project for tracks from downtown to the Reno-Sparks convention center located several miles to the south.

So what does all this portend for the future of downtown Reno? As I see it, these answers are about as predictable as rolling the dice on the local craps tables. But the new ballpark, entertainment district and other development plans certainly show promise in terms of Reno’s recovery from the doldrums.  In the spirit of the “Biggest Little City in the World,” let’s just call it a gamble worth taking.

Trains have long been a fascination for me. I recall boyhood trips with my dad and brother to Union Station in downtown Columbus, Ohio, to buy the Sunday edition of The New York Times. If I was lucky, a locomotive followed by unending train cars would come rumbling through at the same time—with the much-anticipated caboose serving as the highlight of my entire weekend  As a teenager, I experienced my first passenger-train ride, traveling pleasantly from the aforementioned Ohio station to my Florida destination.

Thirty-five years later, my interest is now focused on a rapidly emerging form of transportation called light-rail. Gliding along at street level at a lower capacity and speed than heavy rail, these trains are touted by many transportation advocates as the wave of the future. Typically part of a larger transportation network, light-rail systems are designed to provide point-to-point connections to passengers locally and regionally.

Ridership interest in light-rail slowly continues to gain traction across the U.S., with the American Public Transit Association reporting a respectable 0.57% increase in passenger trips this year. Much of this uptick is attributed to the surge in gas prices that we’ve seen over the past several years, leading many to seek out more cost-effective commuting options. Moreover these electrified trains emit little or no pollution while protecting our nation’s energy independence in a competitive world, causing growing numbers of American’s to see light-rail travel as the essence of a green, progressive life.

As awareness grows about the benefits of light-rail, cities nationwide are bellowing the words “all aboard” relative to new passenger lines. The pioneering work of Atlanta’s Metropolitan Atlanta Regional Transit Authority (MARTA), the San Francisco region’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the MAX line in Portland, and the Metro in Washington, D.C. have influenced cities like Charlotte, Denver, Houston and Salt Lake City to implement light-rail systems.

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The MAX Light-Rail in Portland, OR

Norfolk, Virginia’s sleek new light-rail project, “The Tide,” is scheduled to open in 2010. The west side of town will anchor one end of the line, running 7.4 miles through Norfolk and ending in its sister community of Virginia Beach. Excitement also is high in the Phoenix metro area where a 20-mile line with 28 stops commenced in December 2008. Early returns show the line is generating 60% more riders than originally projected — a much-needed shot in the arm for businesses and retailers in downtown Phoenix.

With those statistics in mind, what’s the likelihood of light-rail becoming the transportation option of choice among a larger share of Americans?  To gain a better perspective on this question, I have become a frequent passenger on a light-rail line running from Sacramento to Folsom, where I reside. This experiment is part of my simultaneous pursuit of a car-free lifestyle — a decision I am discovering creates a number of logistical challenges for those wedded to public transportation.

My morning commutes into Sacramento start at 6:40 a.m. with a short trek to the light-rail station in downtown Folsom, either by bus or bicycle. While I prefer the bus option, particularly if I have a meeting where a shirt and tie is needed, I am becoming more amenable to the idea of cycling to the station, as I can take my bike with me on the light-rail train to ease my access to locales downtown.

Sacramento Light-Rail

Sacramento Light-Rail

That being said, I have couple of brief observations.  First, while purchasing a ticket should be easy the process feels daunting at times due to frequent malfunctions with the machines. The convenience of buying a full-day ticket on the bus trip to the Folsom station is another reason why this I prefer the this option in the morning over my bike.

Then there is the issue of costs. Ticket-fare increases on light-rail lines are a nationwide reality, which creates an interesting conundrum: Passenger loads continue to increase amid squeezed regional transit agency budgets — a scenario evident in Sacramento, where passengers find themselves paying more for less comfortable rides. Then there is the chicken-or-the-egg question of fare enforcement; namely, the lack of transit officers checking tickets due to budget constraints while simultaneously dealing with lost revenues from those taking advantage of the system.  Tickets are checked only once out of every fifteen rides I make on light-rail — a boon for blatant fare avoiders or those who are economically challenged due to the recession.

People watching is also an interesting endeavor while on light-rail. Armed with an undergraduate degree in sociology, I’m particularly captured by the diversity and social interactions that are a part of the public transportation culture.  All in all, a broad mosaic of the Sacramento’s socioeconomic strata rides light-rail throughout the day, some with questionable mental states.

One of my recent discoveries about downtown Sacramento is a growing cadre of light-rail enthusiasts who hold the secret code of how to navigate the Sacramento Regional Transit maze. One look at the hieroglyphic light-rail map and schedule and it becomes quickly apparent that newbies would greatly benefit from a tutorial. I found myself befuddled one afternoon after discovering that my appointed location for catching the train home had been moved unceremoniously. After sorting through advice from a disparate set of strangers, I was finally able to identify my designated departure location.

Several well-heeled suburban riders have advised me to take the train only during the morning and evening rush hours, as thugs are less likely to be onboard then. This perception of light-rail danger among suburbanites is surprisingly common. Moreover it often surfaces in communities where new light-rail plans are being discussed, serving as a reason for either not moving forward with the project or limiting it. This is true in my own suburban area, where the last light-rail train to Folsom leaves Sacramento at 6:15 pm. The skewed logic seems to be that criminals are more likely to ride several miles to Folsom in the evening hours, break into a house, and then try to get back on light-rail with their loot in tow.

These sorts of ridiculous mindsets create the barriers to fully integrating light-rail as a transportation option of choice. Many of the residents in my community rarely visit downtown Sacramento by public transportation or car, unless it’s for work. The limited evening hours also hinder suburban residents from enjoying the downtown Sacramento nightlife, including the opportunity to have a drink or two without worry of having to drive home afterward. Many of the struggling Sacramento venues would greatly benefit from the infusion of suburban dollars.

As a result of my experiences here in the Sacramento region as well as in other cities like Portland, I’ve come to five conclusions about light-rail:

1. It’s a viable transportation option as long as funding is available to ensure its success. Budget shortfalls equal light-rail stagnation. Building and maintaining a light-rail system is an expensive prospect, therefore a return-on-investment is a necessary part of the equation. Randall O’Toole of the Cato Institute says an average mile of light-rail line costs two to five times as much as one mile of an urban freeway lane. He cites as an example the Portland MAX light-rail line, which has spent more than $2.3 billion—half of the region’s capital funds for transportation—but carries less than one percent of Portland’s travelers.

2. Light-rail or any current form of public transportation is not a substitute for cars. As a number of transportation experts attest, we have to remain mindful of the “Prius Effect,” where energy-efficient cars potentially undercut the appeal of public transportation options like light-rail. Moreover, urban sprawl may make the convenience of light-rail too logistically difficult without the availability of cars. Moving past this conundrum requires the pursuit of more cooperative partnerships between light-rail and advocates of alternate forms of transportation, such as bicycle groups and private companies like Zipcar, which offers on-demand, short-term auto rentals for car-free enthusiasts.

3. The biggest influencers on light-rail ridership will continue to be traffic jams and rising fuel costs. The trump cards for light-rail will be convenience and safety. Addressing the latter two items will help overcome the former two complaints.

4. Light-rail must take a page from the coffeehouse book and get on the Wi-Fi bandwagon. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authority in San Francisco is among several national transit systems that have announced plans to offer Wi-Fi access to commuters. BART’s initiative, projected to be completed in 2011, will offer high-speed mobile access for 104 miles of track and 43 stations. Rumor has it that some Bay Area employers may offer work-hour credit to their employees for being online and actively working during their light-rail commute.

5. As light-rail gains popularity, there will be a correlating increase for more train manufacturing and maintenance facilities. Good news on the jobs front, as our nation crawls out of the recession. One company is already making its mark in this area: Siemens. It has the only permanent light-rail manufacturing facility on U.S. soil. In fact, one out of every three North American light-rail vehicles is produced at the company’s Sacramento plant, and its list of cities served is impressive: Denver, Salt Lake City, Houston, Charlotte, Norfolk, Edmonton, Calgary, Portland, Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento. Siemens offers more good news: plans to add upwards of 200 jobs in the next 18 months.

The future of light-rail is rife with possibilities in terms of growth and sustainability. What remains certain is its place at the table when discussions turn to economic and environmental benefits to society.