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Many US Cities Develop Light Rail Systems

Many large American cities are trying to alleviate traffic congestion by improving their mass transit systems. A growing number of those systems include light rail trains - a faster and more sophisticated version of the streetcars or trolleys that most cities abandoned some 40-50 years ago.

Light rail uses electrically powered cars with steel wheels on tracks in the street. It often has a special lane so it can move faster, but it can also operate in mixed traffic.

Mockingbird Station is a high-density development of loft apartments, bistros, boutiques and a multi-screen independent film theater in downtown Dallas. Completed only last year, the neighborhood was named after a nearby light-rail station, which opened on the corner of Mockingbird Lane and North Central Expressway in 1996. Jack Wierzenski heads the economic development and planning department for the Dallas area transit system. He says before the light rail station opened, this was an industrial area. "Dr. Pepper [soda] bottling plant was over on one side of the station," he said. "On the other side was a Southwestern Bell or General Electric warehouse where they built old telephones and then also an office tower was over there."

The warehouses have been turned into loft apartments with street-level shops, and the office tower now houses a large Virgin Records store and a parking garage. Mr. Wierzenski says the city of Dallas is hoping that light rail will help revive more downtown areas.

But a few years ago, it wasn't a popular idea. Dallas developer Ken Hughes was one of just a few developers who believed that the transit system would make this part of the city attractive. "But the logic would have it that the reason that people had not used the rail before [was] because it wasn't there, of course, but [also] because they really didn't understand how they could live close by and walk from their home, or from a business location and get on the rail station and go to another destination," he said.

Ken Hughes says he has always liked lively European cities like Paris, London and Rome and has hoped to re-crate some of their vitality in Dallas. "But there really was not much of a model because we had to combine the sensibilities of a suburban, typically American automobile-oriented society [that requires wide streets and a lot of parking space] with a tighter, closer access to the rail station, so that walking distances are short," said Ken Hughes.

The light rail is part of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system, called DART for its acronym. It now covers some 35 kilometers and is scheduled to extend to about 150 kilometers in the next eight years.

Gary Thomas, the president of Dallas Transit, says in many places, the rails follow the route of the old trolley-car system, which closed down some 50 years ago. "So what we are actually seeing now is history come full-circle and we are seeing the light rail system come back in because it does allow for a system to move a lot of different people in a hurry," he said. "We carry about 43,000 people on a daily basis right now. We expect to add about another almost 30,000 people to that, as we continue to expand, and again doubling that later by 2010."

At the same time, the Dallas area has been expanding - its population constantly growing. Some critics think the light rail has not helped relieve traffic congestion and will never have enough positive impact to justify its high cost.

Light rail construction can cost from $10 million to $50 million and more per mile.

Many people prefer spending money on building new roads to accommodate more cars. This Dallas resident, for example, does not believe public transportation has a future in Texas. "Since Texans love highways and love their cars, it's difficult to, I think, ever get them out of their cars," he said. "So, that's one of the things you have to understand when you live in the Dallas/Fort Worth area - Texans like cars."

But supporters of light rail point out that the level of pollution in some American cities is reaching the point when motor vehicle traffic needs to be curbed at any cost. Electric light rail is among the least-polluting means of transit and it can increase the number of passengers easily by adding more cars to the train. In the past two decades, more than a dozen American cities have built or expanded their light rail transit systems. Forty-three additional light rail systems are under study or in various stages of development, in places as diverse as Arizona and Hawaii. Dallas area transit officials say more than a half of their light rail riders also have cars, but choose to ride light rail whenever possible.