Sunday, April 30, 2006
Time to rally behind light rail service
By Pratima Agrawal
Like most citizens of the Lehigh Valley, I have at one time or another been victim to Route 22’s menacing traffic jams. I think most people are aware of the Valley’s rapidly growing population and feel something must be done about decreasing congestion on our major avenue of travel. Like most, I am keenly aware of the endlessly soaring cost of gas.
A few months back, after viewing the documentary “The End of Suburbia” by Gregory Greene, hosted by the SouthSide Film Institute, I could not sit back and watch the Lehigh Valley invite crisis. I chose to become an active member of a grass-roots organization, Lehigh Valley Beyond Oil, whose mission is to facilitate local solutions to the global problem of Peak Oil (Peak Oil is the point when the extraction of oil from the earth reaches its highest point and begins to decline, causing rising oil prices). Experts predict it will occur between 2005 and 2007, if it hasn’t already).
What do our local planners have in mind to solve the problem with Route 22? They want us to drive more. The Lehigh Valley Planning Commission’s proposal to widen Route 22 will only take us in the wrong direction.
Study after study has shown widening highways doesn’t solve congestion; it creates a situation called “induced travel.” Those who normally carpool or use public transit are encouraged to take more or longer trips alone and switch from local routes to the highway. Most studies recommend a combination of diverse forms of transit readily available to the public and communities pulling together to make them easily accessible.
In 2001, an LVPC study concluded local light rail is not a feasible option in reducing Route 22 congestion due to low ridership predictions. Were any Valley residents consulted as to whether they’d be avid users? Was any research done on how to effectively incorporate a successful light rail system?
I don’t remember any effort to reach out to the public for its opinion or other towns with successful light rail systems.
At a recent PennDOT meeting, my question about how the widening project would help make the Valley independent of oil was dismissed on the grounds that officials could not answer “political questions.” When I approached the facilitator of the meeting and stated my opinion, it was labeled a “global” issue. Is the Lehigh Valley not part of the world? This meeting was supposed to address public concerns and gain feedback; I felt as if I had no voice.
If planned in conjunction with other non-driving methods (company carpool, bike, walking incentives, increased bus service), local light rail connection to our three major towns would not only reduce congestion, it would help revitalize our downtowns and serve as a draw for visitors. If connected to our suburbs with park-n-rides, it would not deprive anyone of the benefits and would raise property values.
We cannot forget the benefits to those who cannot afford automobiles and must rely on public transit to get to work. Want to help retain the youth population? Light rail is one attraction.
How many of us want to deal with Route 22 traffic to pay a visit to neighboring towns just to throw our last few dollars away on gas, find parking, and spend a weekend afternoon outside our comfortable 5-mile radius unless we really have to?
Our local planners are not doing what it takes to deal with the challenges we’ll inevitably face. The days of cheap oil are behind us, and we have to move the Lehigh Valley into an era that does not rely on it.
Either stand up and oppose Route 22’s expansion and rally for local light rail or get ready to squeeze those pockets dry at the pump.
Pratima Agrawal is a Bethlehem resident.