A Western railvolution begins

 

In 1981, when I got my first car — a used Toyota Corolla — the first thing I did was take a trip out West. For a prisoner of the sprawling suburbs of St. Louis, Mo., nothing could have been sweeter than to put that sea of homes in the rearview mirror, and to fill the windshield with the wide-open Western plains and mountains.

I could have taken a train or a bus, but my car represented freedom. What if I wanted to take a back highway through the small farm towns of western Iowa, or bump down a dirt road high up in a Colorado national forest? And so, I steered myself around as much of the West as I could, and became an ardent fan of the open road.

Fast-forward six years. I am sitting in a train, hurtling through a tube underneath the San Francisco Bay, heading to my first real job as a cub reporter for a local wire service. It’s crowded, but not uncomfortable. In fact, as I read the newspaper and casually eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, I can’t help feeling smug. Above me, thousands of cars are inching along the Bay Bridge. I’ll be at work before most of them get halfway across it.

I realized then that the automobile is not necessarily synonymous with freedom and the good life. For the past six decades, however, this country has believed that it is. And so, instead of growing up, our cities have grown out, spreading out over the land in monocultures of single-family homes interspersed with shopping malls. This car-dependent pattern has inevitably created problems, including traffic jams and air pollution, not to mention the need for lots of public dollars to keep expanding and maintaining the network of roads.

Things have gotten so bad that the leaders of some Western cities have begun to embrace new ideas. A year ago, voters in Denver passed a $4.7 billion expansion of the city’s small but well-used light rail system. Over the next decade, 119 new miles of rail lines will be added to the system, with lines radiating north to Boulder, west to the foothills of the Rockies and east to the white-tented Denver International Airport. The expanded system will free some citizens from the tyranny of the automobile and relieve the ever-mounting pressure on Denver’s highways.

The rail lines also hold the promise of reshaping an entire metro area. Already, conference rooms and computers are humming with plans to redevelop the lands around the 57 new stations that will be built. Instead of single family homes or single-use industrial parks, developers and their backers are envisioning compact new towns, with a mixture of homes, apartments, shopping and offices, all within walking distance of the train.

The idea is that when you fly over Denver 20 or 30 years from now, hopefully you will be able to see these dots of urban villages, and make out the skeleton of our transit system," says Mayor John Hickenlooper.

Denver is not alone in its enhusiasm for the rail. In the span of just six years, Salt Lake City’s Trax light rail system has become embedded in the daily routine of commuters, church-going Mormons on their way to Temple Square, and Utah Jazz fans headed to a game at the Delta Center. So far, Trax diverts only 2 percent of the metro area’s traffic, some 50,000 daily riders, but that is enough to take the edge off of rush-hour, according to city planners. Plus, adding more trains is far cheaper than expanding Interstate 15.

The western railvolution has also taken hold in Albuquerque, which will begin operating a short commuter line in 2006. Gov. Bill Richardson is pushing for an extension to Santa Fe, 60 miles north. And Phoenix, the land of tract homes with swimming pools, is plunging ahead with a $1.3 billion light rail project.

Making the West’s towns and cities more compact is critical if we want to prevent the rest of our private lands from being devoured, and to keep our precious public lands from being sold off to the highest bidders. According to a report from the Brookings Institution, to accommodate the tens of millions of additional people who will live in the West by 2030, we will have to construct almost seven times as many homes, factories and stores as existed here in 2000.

If the only option for these folks is car-based suburbia, then the West we love will disappear under concrete and asphalt and cookie-cutter houses. That’s why all of us — even the most ardent automobile lovers —have a stake in the grand experiment now under way in Denver and the rest of the West.

Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He is the publisher of the paper there and can be reached at plarmer@hcn.org.