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Memphis - Get Ready for Rail

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http://www.bizjournals.com/memphis/stories.../26/story1.html

Get ready for rail

MATA favors ambitious route

Amos Maki

Sometime in the next six months, Memphis Area Transit Authority will get back its light rail environmental impact statement from the federal government and could then begin its nine-mile journey to the airport.

While the airport route has received the most attention of late, it is only a small cog in the big machine of the city's light rail plans.

The proposed $400 million airport route, officials say, is essential to the long-range, regional plan MATA has in mind.

That plan, called the Regional Rail Plan, calls for using sleek new light rail trains to move people from Millington, Germantown, Collierville and even DeSoto County into and out of the City of Memphis. The plan could take more than 30 years and cost an estimated $1.5 billion.

Although the route to the airport is still in dispute, most officials believe within the next decade Memphians and tourists alike will make the trip using light rail trains.

"The bottom line is getting to the airport," says William Hudson, president and general manager of MATA. "Either way it goes, we're going to get to the airport."

The airport's location, Hudson says, gives the transit agency a maximum number of choices for expansion. From there, the light rail tracks could stretch into Mississippi or north to Millington or around the Poplar corridor.

But just getting to the airport will be a long trip. Already, the administrative review process by the Federal Transit Administration has taken longer than officials thought and there will be a lengthy series of public meetings to determine which route to take. After the public meetings, where input from citizens will be sought, officials will have to present the plan to the MATA board and to the City Council.

One route, called Alternative 1, would go east on Madison before turning south on Cooper, east on Young and then making the final trip south on Airways. MATA officials are also considering plans to divert the trains away from the Cooper-Young neighborhood. Alternative 2 would follow Pauline to Lamar, where it would connect with Airways.

The route along Madison could merge three entertainment and shopping districts -- Downtown, Overton Square and the Cooper-Young neighborhood -- with three employment districts --Downtown, the medical district and the airport.

Officials say the other route could help revitalize part of the economically depressed Lamar corridor.

Then there is the problem of train placement. Current plans call for trains to share the road with motor vehicles for long sections of both routes. In many places the trains will be slightly raised, about curb height or a little lower.

"Frankly, I'm very concerned about what our definition of light rail is," says councilman Jack Sammons. "Street level light rail in the middle of congested traffic is not convenient and it's inefficient."

According to the Tennessee Department of Transportation, 47,660 vehicles a day travel on Lamar between Pauline and Airways, while Pauline sees 4,190 vehicles. On Madison east of I-240, 11,760 vehicles hit the road each day.

Tom Fox, MATA's assistant general manager for planning and capital projects, says MATA would have to buy property on the west side of Airways to build tracks. In both plans, the tracks that parallel Airways would be in their own right of way, separate from the street.

Alternative 1 along Madison, Cooper and Young would have drivers using the same lanes as rail vehicles. Alternative 2 from Pauline down Lamar would have rails in exclusive lanes, although motor vehicles would be able to cross the tracks at certain points.

Some officials from Houston might agree with Sammons. In that city, 35 accidents involving light rail trains, commuters and/or pedestrians have occurred since the system began carrying passengers in November. Internal studies from Houston's transit agency, METRO, show it is the car drivers who have been at fault in every accident.

"It will be a learning process," says Hudson. "But we are confident."

MATA officials say other options -- using existing train tracks or elevated light rail tracks -- are almost impossible because of a lack of cooperation from railroad companies and because elevating tracks is cost prohibitive.

"It's just not as easy as saying let's go get that rail line," Fox says.

Even if officials settle on a route and placement of the trains, the $400 million price tag for the airport route could be a potential barrier. The FTA would provide half the funding with the city and state dividing the remaining $200 million. The attraction of federal dollars for the route is another reason it is so coveted.

"It would be an easier sell to get the federal government to commit" money to a smaller project like the airport extension, says Hudson.

Sammons says that is still just too high a price to pay.

"If the number is $100 million, I think it's D.O.A.," he says. "We just don't have $100 million to give them."

Even with the hefty price tag, some experts say light rail systems can be a boon to the economy.

The key to successful rail operations, says Robert Puentes, senior research manager at the Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., is proper land use along the tracks and around the stations. Puentes says economic growth is the driving force behind light rail.

"You're not going to see a dent in terms of those big issues," he says. "The successful municipalities who utilize rail are the ones that are looking at retail investments where there are land development opportunities.

"When the accompanying land use is done right, there are dramatic success stories across the country," Puentes says.

"Economic development can take place," Hudson says. "It happens in cities all across the country. Why not Memphis?"

CONTACT staff writer Amos Maki at 259-1764 or at [email protected]

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As a resident of the Memphis area, I've been concerned about ridership expectations and safety of the light rail route. I've riden similar systems in St. Louis and Dallas and noticed that there is never a point on the line where the LR cars are on the streets with the pedestrians and car traffic. As a matter of fact, both systems run underneth the congested part of downtowns like a subway.

Another concern is could Memphis with a population density of 2314 per sq mile generate the type of ridership of More densly populated cities like St. Louis 5,367 people per sq mile or Dallas 3248.6?

Let me know your thoughts on this.

data reference from:

http://www.bestplaces.net/city/ccpeop.aspx...&Rcity=4819000&

http://www.bestplaces.net/city/ccpeop.aspx...&Rcity=2965000&

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