From Spokane to Orlando cities throughout the country are developing
passenger light rail. There are at least 30 existing systems and another
40 or so on the boards.
A recent study led by the University of Arkansas Center for Community
Development found that Northwest Arkansas is a strong candidate for
light rail. The study, which included work by University of Arkansas and
Washington University at St. Louis architecture students and design
professionals from Minnesota and California, has won two major national
The study is an “advocacy document” says UACDC director
Stephen Luoni. “Were pushing the conversation to get to that level of
support to get to a feasibility study.”
Like the rest of the world, Arkansas is making a dramatic shift toward
urbanization. The population of Northwest Arkansas is estimated to grow
from its current 300,000 to 1 million by 2050.
Current urban planning models are increasingly focused on reducing
sprawl through transit-orient development. That means compact,
pedestrian-oriented neighborhoods centered on transit hubs.
Northwest Arkansas provides important characteristics for light rail.
Rail systems are most efficient when they are arranged in a linear
configuration rather than in amoebic conglomerations. The string of
merging cities from Fayetteville to Bentonville originally grew up
around rail service — two-thirds of the population lives within one mile
of the main rail line. As much as 66 percent of the cost of building a
new light rail system is used in acquiring the property. Most of this
right of way already exists in Northwest Arkansas and is used lightly by
the Arkansas Missouri freight line.
The service laid out in the study runs from the Drake Field airport
south of Fayetteville, up through the chain of towns to Bentonville then
veers off to XNA airport. It connects higher education facilities U of A
and NWA Community College, major shopping centers, and major employers
such as Tyson and Wal-Mart.
But will Arkies ride? Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission
surveys show that current public interest in developing light rail is
mixed. The 2030 Transportation Plan informal survey showed 65 percent
approved of developing light rail but only 5 percent saw themselves
using light rail twice a week or more. According to the UACDC, that's
always the case. Once people find they can work, read or relax on the
way to their jobs and they can count on getting to the airport or an
event on time with no parking worries, train ridership increases.
Light rail is flourishing in some unlikely places. Dallas, for example.
If Americans love their highways and their cars then Texans love them on
steroids. It would seem like a stretch to get many cowboy boots to walk
onto a light rail car. Voters in Dallas at first balked at measures to
get rail started. But the city eventually found funding for a pilot
project. Currently 65,000 people ride the DART trains every workday and
the numbers continue to increase — as does expansion of the system.
Then there's the question of development.
“Dallas has had $10 billion of investment around [light rail] stops,”
Luoni says, “and it's mixed use, walkable and compact.”
There are alternatives to rail. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), which utilizes
train-like buses on dedicated lanes, has been successful in cities from
the environmental poster child Curitiba, Brazil to Eugene, Oregon.
“BRT doesn't make sense here” Luoni asserts “There are large
infrastructure costs — it only works if you have the right of way and
it's not as energy efficient.” But bus lines can grow as a compliment to
rail. “Rail concentrates people, buses distribute people,” Luoni says.
It hasn't yet flourished in some likely places: Austin provides a good
example of what happens when rail transportation happens too little too
late. For a mid-sized city, Austin has the worst traffic and is the most
congested in the U.S., according to the Austin American Statesman.
Despite a robust bus system, average rush-hour commutes are 31 percent
longer than in off-peak periods. That means when I commuted in Austin
last year I was spending an extra 60 hours a year (a week and a half of
work hours) in crawling traffic. Austin's growth from the early 1980's
to present has a similar trajectory as the projected growth for
Northwest Arkansas. Austin is past due to begin its pilot rail line this
A new four-lane highway could cost around $40 million a mile (the range
is between $17 and $74 million) within a developed area. A comparable
light rail project, Raleigh-Durham's system is slated to cost about $23
million per mile. Northwest Arkansas's costs could be less since much of
the right-of-way exists.
Opponents of light rail tell a different story. The unlikely masthead of
the anti-rail movement is a bearded, bicycle-riding, self-proclaimed
environmentalist named Randal O'Toole. Working with the Cato Institute,
O'Toole asserts that statistics show that light rail is an underutilized
economic boondoggle driven by political pork.
The Northwest Arkansas business community is not yet on board since
their infrastructure needs are presently focused on highway transport.
But the Fayetteville, Springdale and Washington County governing bodies
have voted to request that the Northwest Arkansas Regional Mobility
Authority commission a rail feasibility study.
Fayetteville resident Michael Cockram is a writer, designer,
musician and occasional adjunct assistant professor of architecture at
the University of Oregon.
Robocalls -- recorded messages sent to thousands of phone numbers -- are a fact of life in political campaigns. The public doesn't like them much, judging by the gripes about them, but campaign managers and politicians still believe in their utility.