Aspen - the Juneau light rail connection is on the wrong track

Posted: Monday, August 13, 2001

The consideration of light rail as a mass transit option for Juneau remains in the Area Wide Transportation Plan. The plan calls for future study of mass transit options including light rail, along with examination of other options such as expanded bus service, etc.

In the wake of the light rail discussions that took place in the last week of July, the debate on the viability of light rail for Juneau continues to bubble.

Rail champion and longtime Juneau resident Bill Leighty, and Frank Guzzo, sales representative for a Sacramento-based train maker, Siemens Transportation, elevated this discussion with a series of well-planned meetings engaging a great number of people in lively debate.

Leighty and Guzzo generally presented factual background and real-life examples of viable rail systems in urban settings. When asked for an example of the smallest community with a viable system, Guzzo cited Sacramento, Calif., as the only place he could identify.

Both Leighty and Guzzo were off base in trying to hold up Aspen, Col., as an example of small community that is seriously considering light rail. A similarly misinformed writer also assisted in propagating this myth in a letter published in this paper last week.

Let's get the facts straight:

First and foremost, Aspen is not considering rail for its 6,000 residents. The rail proposal there was a regional one, designed to serve a 42-mile corridor in the Roaring Fork River Valley to serve an area with a resident population of more than 65,000 people, along with more than a million visitors annually.

The rail issue in the Roaring Fork Valley has been debated for more than 20 years at great cost to the taxpayers of the district.

Many studies have been done through the years on the Colorado line. All of them left big, gaping questions as to the ultimate cost to design and build the system. The question of ridership was a big uncertainty. The question of what to do with the existing areawide bus service was never effectively answered.

The primary motivation to build a rail transit system for the Roaring Fork Valley was to remove cars from a congested mountain highway.

The question of how many cars would be removed from the highway was never adequately answered. As Mr. Guzzo acknowledged, effectively ascertaining the impact of a light rail system on auto traffic is impossible.

In the fall of 2000, the last rail measure was defeated. There is a movement now to decommission the Roaring Fork Railroad Holding Authority, which has been heavily funded over the past several years with a full-time, paid director.

Even with one of the world's wealthiest demographics, the Roaring Fork Valley system would forever be independent of the deep subsidies required to keep it running.

In the meantime, the final sections of highway 82 (known as killer 82) are being bridged and 4-laned.

The issue will live on in perpetuity in the Aspen area, mostly because of the eclectic nature of the population there.

The bottom line is that we don't want to use a whimsical example on which to base Juneau's transportation choices.

Assembly members Pillifant and Powell are supportive of spending money on a rail study that will prove to be hugely wasteful.

We also have to ask ourselves, as the state's capital, what kind of message are we sending to the rest of the state when we are willing to spend $300 million or more to build a train that serves a fraction of the state's population instead of improving Juneau's accessibility to everyone?

With the capital move initiative in front of us, our consideration on transportation options should be centered on improving transportation to and from Juneau.

Don Smith


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