Staying with my daughter in Santa Monica (SM), California–walk out the door three blocks, hop on the train and get off at the iconic Santa Monica pier and on to the beach. That’s the way light rail should work, getting people out of their cars and taking them to the places they want to be. I really looked forward to this ride since I have been opposed to the proposed Durham-Orange light rail (D-O LRT) from Durham to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Confused? How can I be for a train in Santa Monica and opposed to my home town train? The simple answer is that one fits and benefits the community and the other is a politically influenced plan that doesn’t fit in a sprawled community. The cost to build the SM light rail is about the same as the proposed D-O LRT but that’s where the similarities end.
The Santa Monica Metro Expo Line was designed as an integrated system of buses, protected bike lanes, and walkways to bring riders to the train while the D-O LRT model just focuses on locating tracks wherever the least resistance allows. Santa Monica has built well marked, protected bike lanes for an easier and safer bike commute to the rail stations so you can pedal right up to the train, walk your bike aboard and off to your chosen destination. For those choosing not to walk or bike, an efficient system of buses can get you to any of the SM train terminals. The $1.75 one-way cost (discounted for seniors and students) can buy you a ride to the beach or shopping and business districts in Santa Monica or Los Angeles. My grandkids can even take the train to school. Quoting a passenger on the Santa Monica Metro, “I love this train. It actually goes somewhere”. If you hop on the proposed D-O LRT you will be able to travel 17 miles from Duke Hospital in Durham to UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill stopping at 17 mostly who needs to go here? stations. The whole D-O LRT plan seems to be more of an excuse for squeezing in more development in existing, over-congested areas than a logical solution to traffic problems using all transportation options.
Santa Monica is an urban area 5 times denser in population than the Durham/Chapel Hill area so many more can leave their cars parked and walk to any of the Metro stations. Any mode of mass transit has to be convenient and easy to use to get Americans out of their cars. The D-O LRT plan with limited station parking and stations located in sparsely populated areas fails on both the convenience and ease of use tests so most potential riders will probably just stay in their cars. On the positive side, those hearty Carolina commuters within walking distance of a rail station who withstand the uncomfortable, sweat-soaked odyssey in the sunny, hot, humid Carolina summers will probably be rewarded with their choice of seats.
I am proud to be the owner of a Santa Monica Metro tap card that I can use to ride trains to the beach or shopping and a supporter of any practical mass transit plan that provides solutions to our overly congested roads and transportation needs. Good transportation solutions should be customized to meet the unique needs of the community, without political interference, and all options should be considered.
Planning, building, and maintaining any kind of mass transit is expensive with payback being measured in use rather than dollars so it’s important that a community takes the time to get it right. Congratulations to Santa Monica and provisional congratulations to the officials planning the D-O LRT IF they revise their plan and get it right so I can get out of my car and take a fast train in Santa Monica or a fast bus in Durham to “somewhere”.
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