A Times editorial of Feb. 15, "On Track With Light Rail," was timely and challenging. That is especially so if the proposed is approached with systems that solve problems and do not compound the congestion they seek to relieve.
The proposed system should have no conflicts at all with the surface's present and projected activities. It should require no land acquisition. And, it should be routed in a way that benefits existing centers and is also adaptable to planned developments.
Indeed, the system should be above the existing ground surface traffic. If the sites truly merit this fixed-guideway transit, the surface streets, already preempted and irretrievable, are better put to more important purposes. Any new surface developments will greatly compromise or inhibit planning.
The obstruction of traffic occurs with the San Diego, Long Beach and Portland trolley systems, where all stop traffic and stop themselves for autos and pedestrians. Preexisting surface street conditions in these cities were forced to adapt to surface rail constraints. Dedicated lanes, elimination of parking, median climb-to-platform stations all displaced automobile traffic.
The displaced traffic and its space requirements now place a greater load on the remaining street network. In contrast, Chicago's "Loop" system, first installed at the turn of the century and currently being rebuilt, is entirely elevated. They know something the West Coast--save the Bay Area's BART system--has not yet figured out with light rail systems.
Corridor routes and stations in Orange County should be above central business district streets and intersections. These unused spaces, when traversed by large-capacity, closely spaced vehicles, can provide service to meet various demands at various times without penalizing the flow of traffic on the surface. This elevated system may, believe it or not, actually alleviate surface street congestion and solve a problem.
Orange County Transportation Authority planners, validated by consultants, appear ready to take a step backward into the first half of the century: "any rail line will probably be at grade in most cases rather than elevated." San Diego's recent above-ground extension indicates the lessons learned from such an approach, and this model should provide warning to Orange County.
Light rail technology, with its often oversold incremental upgrades, is nothing more than streamlined, shiny streetcars. Electrification and automation are the only true innovations that have affected this technology in 100 years.
With its design and deployment methods that are readily endorsed by consultants, agency staffs are supported by no-risk programs that produce the likes of the trolley systems mentioned previously.
San Diego's short run of elevated section, with its expensive, frequently supported (60-plus columns per mile), dubiously quake-tolerant, freeway overpass-type guideways, required heavy capital commitments and lengthy project development times. Small wonder that OCTA wants no part of this aboveground model for its 28-mile corridor, at estimates of $2 billion ($70 million per mile)--not including unmeasured costs to existing street networks and local opposition.
Suffering from sticker shock, and literally beaten to the ground by these enormous costs, OCTA has considered remote alignments. These include abandoned rail rights-of-way and drainage channels (where no significant activity centers exist) to accommodate this physically imposing dinosaur.
OCTA appears predisposed to limiting its scope to this streetcar technology, which by no coincidence is heavily marketed by offshore, nationally subsidized rail car suppliers and consultants. This "proven" technology has proven costly, is inherently inflexible and demands that we drastically lower our expectations.
Yes, there are alternate technologies available, but not in "safe" production that OCTA will screen out from its current evaluation of vehicle systems. The name for this alternate technology is suspended light rail--not a monorail--a system where the vehicle's rails, supports and drive systems are clear of both the elevated and surface corridors.
This endorsable system is well above the surface, requires virtually no land acquisition, and allows flexible alignments in spaces never in use through central business districts. Its guideway system employs median or street-spanning supports, eight per mile, for low-profile suspension spans that are superbly quake-tolerant and environmentally benign.
The deployment times are a fraction of conventional surface rails and cause minimal disruption during construction. Capital costs per mile are less than half that projected for OCTA's elevated streetcar system.
OCTA's preliminary engineering and environmental study, currently under consultant contract, should consider this technology despite its unsubsidized status and "unproven," can't-be-worse-than-streetcars track record.