[ Editor’s Note: Thanks to Scott Ritcher for allowing the reprint of his monorail proposal developed in 1998 as part of a mayoral campaign. Scott was born and raised in Louisville and is currently living in Stockholm, Sweden where he is reportedly enjoying an extensive transit system. Last summer, he also wrote two articles comparing Sweden’s traffic problems and Louisville’s 8664.org campaign. Check those out here and here. ]
Louisville’s rapid transit dilemma
By now, we’ve all agreed that Louisville needs to invest in a long-term solution to its growing transportation problems. So many people drive cars everywhere they go that we all carry the burden with clogged roadways and air pollution. 73 percent of Louisvillians drive to work alone in a car. Only 8.5 percent of us take TARC.
We’ve heard a lot of talk about investing in a Light Rail system. But I don’t think that’s the solution. People in other cities with Light Rail systems have many of the same complaints about it that we have about our buses. It’s too slow. It makes a lot of noise. Its web of suspended electrical lines are dangerous and ugly. It’s dated.
The problem with Light Rail
Light Rail is called that because it’s smaller than a full-scale train or an underground subway. Louisville’s water table is too high for anything to be built underground, and we don’t have a passenger train station, so if we want to expand public transportation beyond our bus system, we have to build something new. Obviously, we would want something better than buses.
Light Rail has been introduced as a solution because it seems like the logical next step. It has all the look and feel of something you’d see in a big city, and it’s historically a part of Louisville that has vanished.
There are two ways Light Rail can be implemented. In the first, the tracks are built into existing streets and the train is powered by suspended electrical wires. This doesn’t solve any transportation problems because it introduces a new vehicle (the train) into the already cluttered flow of automobile traffic. If you think Bardstown Road or Broadway are congested now, think what it would be like with a train running down the middle of the road! In addition to the logistics of construction, a web of electricity must also be suspended above the road. Ultimately, surface-based Light Rail is subject to the same limitations as a bus. It’s basically just a louder, more expensive bus on that runs on rails.
The second way to implement Light Rail is by running the train on an elevated track, as it is in Chicago. Aside from the fact that you have a huge iron structure that casts an even bigger shadow, can you even begin to imagine the cost of putting a train up in the air? Trains weren’t meant for the sky.
Why is Monorail the solution?
Monorail systems offer something that Light Rail, buses, and subways can never touch: Profit. Seattle’s Monorail opened in 1962 and is operated by a private company which actually pays the city $75,000 a year in return for the concession to operate it. And the people of Seattle voted last year to expand it to a city-wide 40-mile route. Tokyo’s Haneda Monorail is a privately-owned 8-mile dual-beam system which opened in 1964 and turns a profit every year.
Aren’t experimental vehicles expensive? Monorails are hardly experimental, and they are extremely cost-effective. One of the world’s earliest passenger Monorails at Wuppertal, Germany opened in 1902 and is still operating today. Initial costs can be about the same or more than Light Rail, but the required purchasing of right-of-way is greatly reduced, because the track is only 26 inches wide. And if it’s built and operated by a private company, the cost to the taxpayer is nothing.
Construction time and disruption of the local area are also reduced because Monorail beams can be prefabricated off-site and installed off of trucks. The 1.2-mile Las Vegas Monorail was constructed in only seven months.
Perhaps the biggest advantages Monorails boast are in environmental and safety concerns. Environmentally, Monorails are at the head of their class. Because they are powered by electricity, pollution is a non-issue. Monorails are pleasant to look at and extremely quiet as they run on rubber tires instead of steel rails. Monorails operate in an exclusive and completely safe area with no chance of interaction with automobile or pedestrian traffic. They can arrive quickly and safely on time, with no risk of derailment or collision.
This is the answer to Louisville’s rapid transit dilemma.