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Monday, May 21, 2018
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Better choice for transit: 'Light rail on tires'

I like trains, to begin with. When Sheldon Cooper says the only thing better than two trains is three trains, I'm right there with him. Before Mr. Shunderson dresses down the university board looking into the background of Cary Grant's Dr. Praetorius in “People Will Talk,” the best scene was the model train pileup.

As for grownup trains, I've gotten around on the Metro in Washington D.C., BART in the San Francisco Bay area, MARTA in Atlanta and the subways in London and Paris. Heck, last summer I rode the Chunnel express from London to Paris, and a few summers before that I rode the local roundtrip between Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland. And I have found all those experiences uniformly satisfying.

Moreover, although I am blessed by a workday commute that travels in the opposite direction of rush hour into Wesley Chapel, this year I'm also in charge of ferrying the Heir Apparent to his high school 13 miles away. On a good morning, it's a 45-minute grind, one way. Sometimes — usually when we get a late start — it's a flat hour. So it's not like I'm unfamiliar with Tampa's horrendous traffic flow migraines.

But I've also boarded London's iconic red double-decker people-movers and, in lanes set aside exclusively for bus travel, breezed past cabs, limos and private cars jammed up tighter than your worst Malfunction Junction nightmare. This lane exclusivity, also practiced to startling effect in New York City (but not in Tampa, where buses still share and get bogged down in regular travel lanes), is what makes Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, a genuinely dazzling (and, compared to rail, breathtakingly cheap) thing of beauty.

Accordingly, boosters of light rail as the cure for travel heartache in Tampa and Hillsborough County — before the possibilities of true BRT have exhausted — do so at taxpayers' peril, as National Review's Reihan Salam describes here.

We know this: Regardless of whether we ever get a light rail system, we're going to lay more pavement. Streets and highways will be widened, so that's an expense already figured into the metropolitan transportation plan.

For the additional price of road-striping paint, signage, ticket kiosks and cutting-edge buses, the system urban planners call “light-rail on tires” could blossom here at a scant fraction of the billions (a planned 9.3 mile expansion of light rail in Charlotte, N.C., will run $1.2 billion) needed to do even the most meager commuter train here.

Yes, rail lines attract economic development, and Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe has made no secret of his fondness for light rail as a method not simply for encouraging new business activity, but also for directing where it goes. (Who will pick the land-owning winners and losers, Old West-style, is a post for another day.)

The same cannot be said for BRT, because if growth fails to follow forecast patterns, transit officials simply summon the road-striping crew and lay new, more appropriate routes. Alas, rail supporters regard BRT's thrifty flexibility as a flaw, not a feature.

As I say, I think trains are terrific. Love to ride them. And in urban areas far more densely populated than ours, there's an argument for them. But as a key to relieving what ails local transportation, and given the alternatives aching for full exploration, they're overpriced, hopelessly rigid and, frankly, antiquated, a 19th Century solution to 21st Century problems.

Heck, what an I getting all worked up about? Before they ever complete that first line, we'll all be commuting in autonomous cars.