The city of Phoenix celebrated the dawning of the new year by beginning normal, paying service on its shiny new light rail line. The current 20-mile segment runs from north of central Phoenix through the city, past Sky Harbor airport, and into Tempe and Mesa. If current plans are realized, an extension to the line will be completed by 2012, and a full(ish) network will begin to take shape over the following decade.

The light rail line is part of a wave of transit construction that’s bringing transit systems to a new generation of booming cities. These emergent metropolises often went through crucial development phases at a time when the highway was king. Compared to older cities in the Northeast and Midwest, the amount of space devoted to dense, gridded development in such places is quite small indeed, and it has long been unclear whether transit could work in these cities, built for the car. A dreadful chicken and egg problem seems to exist. Few neighborhoods are currently dense enough to support transit, so opponents argue that systems won’t draw riders. And because opponents can make this argument and systems often die on the drawing board, these cities never have the opportunity to catalyze denser, transit-oriented growth.

 

Among the booming cities afflicted by this condition is Charlotte, N.C. One of the brightest economic lights in the new urban south, Charlotte has enjoyed rapid population growth in recent decades, leading to congestion and, in the 1990s, calls for transit planning. The culmination of a tough, decade-long struggle for transit opened its doors in late 2007. The LYNX rapid transit system promptly blew through 2020 ridership projections as gas prices rose through the summer of 2008.

The precipitous decline in the cost of oil this fall, and the economic downturn generally, cooled ridership on the system somewhat, though numbers remain significantly above projections. Perhaps more importantly given the state of the economy, the interest in transit is supporting development projects along the line. Just this week, the Charlotte Observer reported that some 10 new apartment communities along the transit corridor, totaling 3,000 units, are in some stage of development. These residential units will provide long-term rider support for the system, and will anchor developments at a walkable scale, allowing more people to do more things without resorting to the use of an automobile.

Phoenix has similar goals in mind. Planners there are looking to focus development on transit nodes, increasing the amount and range of activity with transit access, and building a new walkable core to the city. Where the dense, vibrant downtowns of places like New York, Boston, and Chicago made transit systems an absolute necessity, Sunbelt boomtowns are finding that transit systems can create the dynamic cores they often lack.

While these shifts are generally instigated at the local level to fight congestion, improve quality of life, and support the local economy, they serve broader national goals. The availability of transit alternatives limits the impact of high gas prices (which are just an economic recovery away) on personal consumption and saving, contributing to a more resilient national economy. And transit-served cities are likely to find that their per capita emissions levels are reduced, helping to slow national emissions growth, and strengthening the constituency for climate change legislation. It’s easier to support a carbon tax if you have a grocery store within walking distance and can take the train to work.

It’s important to recognize the national significance of these new rail lines. And it’s all the more distressing that tight local budgets are forcing cutbacks on construction and service of new transit systems. In Charlotte, sales tax revenue in 2009 may be some 6 percent lower than previously estimated, forcing service reductions even as ridership levels remain about 70 percent above projected levels.

Barack Obama’s stimulus plan is likely to include about $200 billion in aid to local and state governments, and perhaps $20 billion or more in direct transit investments. Meeting or exceeding those numbers is crucial if we hope to maintain Charlotte’s success and duplicate it, in Phoenix and elsewhere.