Remember the opening monologue on the old television show The Six Million Dollar Man, where, as scientists turn the severely injured Steve Austin (Lee Majors) into a bionic man, Richard Anderson recites, “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability.” ?
    {mosimage}Fayetteville has an opportunity to rebuild its transportation system, to make it “better, faster, stronger.” However, such improvement has nothing to do with bionics or Farrah Fawcett-Majors’ ex-husband; the city’s powers-that-be could dramatically change how people travel from point A to point B by installing a light rail transportation system that some say could boost Fayetteville’s economy and reduce traffic gridlock.
    Light rail is a type of urban rail transportation that generally has a lower occupancy rate and lower speed than typical heavy rail trains and subway systems found in larger cities. It is also usually powered by electricity, sometimes utilizing overhead power lines in the same manner as a trolley car.
    There are many question marks surrounding the implementation of a light rail system in Fayetteville, such as: Do we have the technology? Do we have the infrastructure? Do we have the need? What are  the benefits? Do we have the money?
    The answer to the first two questions is an unqualified yes.
    Many cities across the nation have turned to some form of light rail system, including Charlotte, which operates light rail under the umbrella of its citywide transportation service, Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS).
    Charlotte’s light rail began operation of its 9.6 -mile route in November 2007. It uses the abandoned Norfolk Southern Railroad right of way, part of which runs alongside NS tracks that remain in freight service.
     1999 study undertaken by the city of Fayetteville and the consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates investigated the feasibility of a light rail system. Under the aegis of the Fayetteville Metropolitan Planning Organization, it was determined that the best place for a light rail system would be an approximately 10 plus-mile route along the Cape Fear Railway and Aberdeen & Rockfish railroads that travels, for the most part, parallel to Bragg Boulevard and Skibo Road. Light and heavy rail systems use the same gauge track.
    However, the study alsofound that such a route was not yet economically feasible for Fayetteville, though it did recommend the city preserve the right-of-way on that route for future consideration.
    Don Stewart, chairman of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the project, said he wasn’t surprised that the study found Fayetteville wasn’t ready for light rail; however, he does agree with the study’s recommendation that the city take steps to be prepared for a rail system down the road.
    “What you do is undertake a study to tell us how to prepare for light rail,” said Stewart. “You need to make sure you have the right of way that might get sold to a private entity; you have to purchase and preserve that right of way to prepare for the future. When you get the density of population where you can do this, then that’s why it’s so expensive because you’re having to buy up expensive real estate and you can’t put it where you want it.”
    As an alternative to that light rail system, the study also recommended a trolley system for downtown Fayetteville — comparable to systems found in Portland, Ore., and Seattle, Wash. — that would be “strategically planned and tied to the economic revitalization of the central business district.” A trolley would be much smaller and much less expensive than a light rail system.
    The study does conclude that either system could eventually provide an economic shot in the arm through real estate investment along the light rail corridor, as well as increased tourism in downtown Fayetteville.
    Of course, this increased investment and tourism comes at a cost. Stewart says that typically, light rail costs about $10 million per mile — a figure which includes everything: passenger cars, new track, signals, utilities, maintenance, etc. That number is considerably less than a previous figure given to town officials which left them with a severe case of sticker shock.
    “When consultants said it would cost $23 million per mile a couple of guys from Fayetteville just about jumped out the window,” said Stewart. “But that figure was based on the system in St. Louis that is much, much more grandiose than what we were considering at at that time.
    “Would it cost $10 million a mile? I don’t know,” said Stewart. “But when you go and look at what a highway costs compared to light rail, it’s almost dimes to the dollars.”
    Stewart estimates a downtown trolley system would cost about  $20 million, though such an investment would be greatly offset by various real estate investments.
    “I’d be willing to bet that if you put a trolley line like we proposed that it would drive a business investment of $200 million worth of private investment,” said Stewart.
    Stewart says you also need to consider the other benefits of light rail and/or a trolley system, such as decreased air pollution, decreased traffic, the revitalization of downtown and cheaper gas bills for both the city and individuals.
    Also, a light rail system would not mean that the city buses would or could be retired. Stewart says the bus system will still be needed to distribute the passengers when they get off the trolley or rail, and he realizes that a rail or trolley would not serve the transportation needs of all.
    That was good news for a group of Fayetteville bus patrons waiting at a bus stop on Ramsey Street.
    “I’ve been riding a bus to work for a couple of years,” said Anastasia McLean of Fayetteville. “I don’t want to have to learn a new route.”
    Linda Hunt, also of Fayetteville, said she thinks a street trolley would be a nice thing for the downtown, but she’s not as optimistic about a light rail system.
    “I’ve been to San Francisco and I loved the trolleys,” said Hunt. “But I don’t think we can afford a new train system when we can barely afford to keep our buses running.”
    Hunt isn’t alone in questioning the viability of light rail. A study commissioned by Reason magazine makes numerous points against light rail:
    Air Quality: Light rail would not take enough cars off the road to make any real contribution to air quality improvement. For example, the Charlotte system expects to reduce regional auto travel by only 1/10 of 1 percent;
    Economic Development: North Carolina’s population density and high rates of auto use make rail’s ability to generate economic gains all the more unlikely. Those who would provide revitalization — homeowners and business leaders — favor more straightforward approaches to greater economic development. For example, improving schools and keeping business taxes at a reasonable level;
    Cost-effectiveness: Hefty cost overruns have plagued urban rail for decades. Both the Charlotte and Triangle proposals have exceeded initial cost projections. In Charlotte, a proposal that once cost just over $200 million ended up costing more than $400 million, while in the Triangle, a proposal that was long thought to cost $250 million now stands at well over $800 million;
    Mobility improvement: Even though the Triangle rail proposal would cost nine times more than the next most expensive alternative, it would decrease congestion by less than 1 percent. Moreover, the annual cost per new rail passenger would be very high: $6,747 for Charlotte and $10,358 for the Triangle.
    Despite such objections, Stewart remains positive about the future of light rail in Fayetteville.
“People don’t understand what light rail could do for Fayetteville,” said Stewart. “Some folks think the only people riding the rail would be from a lower economic demographic. If you catered to just that demographic you’d never make any money with a light rail system.
    “And what’s not understood is that a lot of those people will be riding to work, which puts more money into the pockets of the fat cats,” said Stewart. “If we want to grow as a city, we’ve got to think about the future and have a vision — a vision that includes, I believe, some sort of light rail.”

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