New Train of Thought City Now Warming to Rail Use

Article excerpt

With its prestige and population climbing, Jacksonville likes to

count itself among the select cities on the road to first-tier

status.

But with its own roads getting crowded, Northeast Florida lags

behind a growing number of communities that are working to

develop mass transit systems, especially rail systems, to ease

their traffic problems.

Though construction of commuter rail has been discussed for

more than a decade, for practical purposes Jacksonville has yet

to cross the starting line.

"It's 20 years out," predicted Mayor John Delaney, who said the

city needs to plan now for mass transit and buy right of way for

rail corridors. "We've got to get to that. But I think it's a

generation away."

With a city panel examining Jacksonville's growth in coming

months, local officials and rail supporters say that perhaps now

is the time to start working seriously on a transit system, or

decide to cut bait and just build more roads.

By contrast to Jacksonville, mid-sized communities from

Raleigh-Durham, N.C., to Salt Lake City, Utah, are already

working to get money and community consensus for rail projects

they want to bring on line in several years.

Their goal is to make trains a surrogate for the car. Tired of

widening roads that fill up almost immediately, they want to

build rail systems so convenient that people will want to use

them to go to work, shopping and on trips downtown.

Within Florida, Hillsborough County and the city of Orlando are

preparing final, detailed plans they'll take to Washington to

seek federal aid for rail construction. South Florida's Tri-Rail

commuter train already carries travelers in Dade, Broward and

Palm Beach counties.

Jacksonville's only experience with rail transit, construction

of the downtown Automated Skyway Express, has been slow and

politically painful.

But facing growing traffic problems, the city can't afford to

not improve its public transit, advocates argue.

"If we think growth and bringing people to the community is

good, we ought to think about how we can accommodate them," said

Patricia Greason, who lives in a fast-growing subdivision off

Butler Boulevard. "The idea of continuing to consider auto

travel by itself . . . is not really going to do it," said

Greason, a private transportation consultant who specializes in

non-automobile traffic.

STEERING GROWTH

Especially in the South, buses have been widely dismissed as

transit few people will ride if they can afford to own a car.

That leaves cities to juggle a range of rail choices, from

streetcar-like light rail to big commuter trains and subwaystyle

heavy rail. Unlike buses, rail buffs point to studies that show

substantial middleand upper-class ridership.

Supporters say rail offers two things growing cities want: a

magnet to pull construction and financial investment toward

selected corridors, and a longterm way to blunt the traffic

backups that snarl developing neighborhoods.

Hillsborough County's rail plan has excited some builders who

see retailers, office complexes and residential developments

benefiting from a daily flow of thousands of people past their

property. Local officials plan a 70-mile, $310 million system

that will serve a list of high-traffic areas.

Several major developments have asked to have rail stations on

their property, said Ed Crawford, a Tampa area rail advocate.

"By simply selecting where we build the rail stations, we can

steer development," he said. …