Sunday, June 18, 2006

Commuter Rail Revitalizes?

I attended the ceremony Friday at the Farmington Station site, where U.S. Transportation Secretary Norm Maneta announced the full-funding agreement for FrontRunner, UTA's commuter rail project from Pleasant View to Salt Lake City (see here and here for stories.) It was a fun event, showing the support that exists for the project. No question in my mind that we need commuter rail, light rail, and additonal highway capactiy to handle future demand. All will be needed.

However, the hype about commuter rail stations being the focus for new development or revitalization is, I suspect, more hope than reality. Visit some of the commuter rail lines currently in operation around the country -- there's not a lot of development that really can be attributed to the station. Unlike light rail stations, where trains come and go several times an hour all day long, commuter rail stations are much more intermittent. They do not produce the steady stream of riders trickling through the station as is seen in light rail stations.

Look closely at the plans for the Farmington Station development -- there is easily as much parking as you would find in any similar new commercial development like Jordan Landing, probably more because of the parking that is needed to accomodate riders coming to catch the commuter train. The station itself is a key design component, a marketing feature, and something that will indeed result in several hundred people coming through the area each day, which will help. But to make the proposed development succeed, several thousand people need to come each day, and most of them will come by car to shop or eat or see a movie, not because of the commuter rail.

The outlook is even weaker for someplace like "downtown" Clearfield, where city officials are pinning their hopes for revitalization on moving the commuter rail station from its proposed large vacant site to their old downtown. The characteristics of commuter rail make such hoped-for renewal not very likely.

There seems to be some evidence pointing to the viability of enhanced housing development near commuter rail stations, but commercial use is elusive. In a story about the need to encourage transit oriented development in the Boston metro area, the following is noted: "'In selected areas, [TOD] works well. But the major focus of commuter rail is to take people from the suburbs into Boston, where the employment is,' said Dennis DiZoglio, director of planning for the MBTA. 'For most stations outside the core, it's parking lots, so people can get on trains and go into Boston. They are not usually located in a center of commerce or where there are a lot of jobs. Most people come in from the surrounding area, and are not looking at a reverse commute.' Local wishes have must have priority as well, DiZoglio said. Most outlying towns associate stations with traffic and parking problems, and prefer locations outside the town center."

6 Comments:

At 4:15 PM, Blogger Utah Peaknik said...

Isn't it ironic?

We used to have rail transit decades ago. It was called the Bamberger. People could actually walk to a nearby station, as opposed to having to drive five miles and across the freeway to a park-and-ride lot.

I think that the worst planning decision that was ever made on the Wastach Front was letting the Bamberger go and having its right-of-way sold off.

I always laugh when I hear people call mass transit "socialist," or "unorthodox." I guess they don't know that decades ago, cities had trolly cars, and people took trains to go see grandma, get to work, etc.

Commuter rail will be so nice. 50 minutes from Pleasant View to downtown SLC is actually pretty fast as far as mass transit goes. And if you use the 50 minutes to read or work on your laptop, you aren't really wasting the extra twenty minutes you would have saved driving. And on days when I-15 is backed up or closed down, taking commuter rail will probably be faster.

 
At 9:51 AM, Blogger google_PEAK_OIL said...

Remember a time before automobiles dominated the way we lived when the rail station was the center of town? Picture 24th street in Ogden in the 1st half of the 20th century. Or the street leading to the Union Pacific station in Salt Lake.
The rail stations may start as vast parking lots, but then may evolve into something resembling what surrounded early rail stations as we move further into the energy crisis. Or maybe the "park and ride" lots will start to look a lot more Like they do in Sweden

 
At 11:22 AM, Blogger Nathan Daniels said...

Actually, you should be looking to places like Tokyo and Hong Kong to see what the potential is when something is done right. If the development that springs up is incohesive or poorly planned, then the only point to the stops is coming and going to other things near the stops like home and work. However, if you make each stop a destination, then there is additional reason to take the train. For example, in Tokyo, if you want electronics you take the train to Akihabara, if you want clothing, same train to Ginza, if you want to go to the zoo or a nice park, Ebisu is your destination. Add on connections to the E-center and Airport and you begin to see where not wanting to deal with traffic and parking starts to look attractive.

I understand you skepticism because you are trying to predict Utah's success based on American failure. Commuter rail has been done right in many places across the world and even a few places in the states (NYC would be perfect minus the crime). The question is whether or not Utah will get it right.

 
At 11:56 AM, Blogger Cody Hilton said...

As a Farmington resident I went to the open house last month that was put on to display information about Legacy Parkway, Farmington Station (the commercial development), and Commuter Rail. I spoke with Richard Haws about the commercial development. He said that having the commuter rail station part of the commercial development was not a selling point for signing on retail tenants. The tenants were very concerned that parking stalls around their stores would be taken up by commuters rather than customers, and customers would have to park far away thus deterring business. I find it ironic that the commercial developers tout a TOD (transit oriented development) when they really wish commuter rail wasn't part of the development.

 
At 2:08 PM, Blogger James said...

This comes back to an issue I've always found interesting, namely the fact that I have often wondered if commercial outfits (take Wal Mart or any other store) have the ability to recognize the potential for a place, when all their models point squarely to the "normal" way of building a project.

With the bland, straightforward site plans we know and love, parking ratios, walking distances, traffic counts...everything can be quantified and controlled. When all those things can no longer be definitively determined, the perceived risk skyrockets.

Until we planners can become more conversant in the world of retail (and residential) real estate practices, we will never be able to argue for this type of "progressive development" in terms the industry can understand.

 
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