Ben Adler has a provocative piece at Campus Progress arguing that mid-distance light rail -- such as the L.A. to San Francisco project that passed on the California ballot -- is over hyped.

While making the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco by high-speed rail instead of by flying would save some CO2 emissions, the bigger problem is not that you can’t get from L.A. to San Francisco fast enough by train, it’s that you can’t get around L.A. or San Diego, the nation’s second and eighth largest cities, respectively, without a car. ...

I don’t want to set up a false dichotomy between inter-city travel like the high-speed rail initiative and intra-city and commuter transit like city buses; each is beneficial in their own way. But, assuming there is a competition among scarce resources, there must be a healthy debate about not just the need for rail redevelopment in general, but what should be a top priority.

Indeed, with the economic crisis hitting state budgets especially hard, it isn't unreasonable to ask these questions. Ideally, we'd be able to move forward on plans like the California initiative while simultaneously making sure light rail lines link up usefully to regional and intra-city transit systems. After all, if there's no way from your train stop to your job, family member's home, or to tourist attractions, you can't fundamentally alter the way you get around. But in a situation of scare resources, it might be smarter to focus first on getting people onto mass transit for their commutes. The California light rail line will impact some longer commutes, but in general, won't allow most workers to leave their cars at home.

--Dana Goldstein

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