A dream of light rail for Northwest Arkansas 

An 'advocacy' study pushes traffic solution.

click to enlarge ALL ABOARD: A study's concept of a light rail stop in Fayetteville.
  • ALL ABOARD: A study's concept of a light rail stop in Fayetteville.

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 design awards.

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 year.

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.

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