Trolley travails 

Well, the three trolley cars are out during trial runs on the 2.2-mile track connecting Little Rock and North Little Rock that is supposed to be operable Nov. 1. And, to no one's surprise, there are problems. The trolleys, which cost $800,000 each, are 8 feet 8 inches wide, weigh 48,000 pounds and occasionally jump the track when they turn some corners. So soon drivers and pedestrians will have something new to watch to stay healthy. On President Clinton Avenue, which is where we want visitors to go, the trolleys will come within eight inches of big parked cars. Because the trolleys are so wide and long, dozens of much-needed parking places at the ends of streets have been eliminated because trolleys on tracks turning corners on two-lane streets could bash the cars parked there. New white lines painted on the street indicate that cars must be parked behind them and that the drivers should never get out on the driver's side. And if you own one of those huge SUVs and you are pressing the white line, you need to park elsewhere or get set to replace a side-view mirror, which will probably cost you $200. Naturally, the people who run the Central Arkansas Transit Authority and the workers are doing everything they can to be sure the trolley line is an asset. However, most of the people I know believe that it would have been wiser to expand and improve the bus service rather than to spend $19.5 million (80 percent federal money, 20 percent local) on a trolley line. Sure, people - visitors and locals -- will want to ride the trolley once. But this trolley line is so short (too much of the 2.2 miles is crossing the Arkansas River) that it neither can serve commuters nor lower the number of cars on the streets - the goals of trolley lines. Even the few people who live and work on the trolley line will probably decide that it's quicker to walk rather than wait for the trolley. As for tourists, the trolleys will be handy for people staying at the four big hotels close to the river, but it can take them only to the riverfront on Markham/President Clinton, the Old State House, the Little Rock Library, North Little Rock's Main Street and within two and a half blocks of the Alltel Arena. Of course, CAT has a Phase 2 and Phase 3 in mind that probably would perform a service, picking up people as far as west Little Rock and the top of Park Hill and carrying them not only downtown but to the Clinton Library, the Little Rock National Airport and nearly anywhere else in the county. Preliminary engineering has started on Phase 2, which might be underway in 18 months. But there are no plans for the start of Phase 3. With the war against terrorists and the national deficit growing daily, one would have to believe there will be little federal money available for more tracks and streetcars. CATA people like to talk about the success of trolleys in places like New Orleans, which has wide streets and a population of 473,000. People there have to pay as much as $175 a month to park their cars in garages. (It costs only $70, sometimes less, in downtown Little Rock.) Austin, Texas will vote Nov. 2 on whether to buy diesel street cars that will make nine stops bringing people into the city on 32 miles of old rails. Austin, of course, is quite different from Little Rock and North Little Rock in that 670,000 people live there, it has maybe the worst traffic problems of any city in the country and in 2000 the people voted against a similar trolley proposal. Why didn't the people of Little Rock and North Little Rock get to vote on CATA's trolleys? Well, I suppose it's because CATA Executive Director Keith Jones, the two city's mayors and Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines are trolley enthusiasts and knew the citizens weren't. In August, Dr. Thomas Garrett, the senior economist of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, made a study of light rail projects around the country. He found little evidence that trolleys reduced traffic congestion and that what passengers paid to ride didn't even come close to the operating costs. In fact, Dr. Garrett said that the cost of operating trolleys is great enough to buy a $20,000 automobile every five years for each person who rides them. Too bad that his study didn't come out two years ago. *** Newspaper and TV reporters are wearing us out about George W. Bush and John Kerry during the Vietnam war. Dan Rather of CBS news, armed with two interviews of a couple of old Texans and some letters that appear to be frauds, is telling us that President Bush got in easily and got out sooner with an honorable discharge from the Texas National Guard because his father was a Texas congressman. What we ought to be hearing and reading now is what Bush and Kerry want to do as president, not what happened 30 years ago. Surely everyone knows that thousands of young men got breaks like his during that war, which until now was the most needless one in history. Rather is hurting journalism and his career.

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