HomeFocus On Light Rail and the Lehigh Valley

Light Rail and the Lehigh Valley

The April 1981 edition of the New Valley Press featured an article on light rail transit written by State Representative Bob Freeman. You will notice a few places where it refers to the then-pending I-78 project — if you substitute ‘Route 22 widening project’, the article is still appropriate today!

Light Rail and the Lehigh Valley

By Bob Freeman

At the turn of the century, one of the most widely used forms of transportation in America was the electric trolley or streetcar. Introduced in the late 1880s, this particular mode of transportation reached its zenith in the mid-1920s, when over 44,000 miles of light rail track were in use. In its heyday, the electric trolley provided a multitude of services. City trolleys honeycombed the streets of the new metropolises of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These urban areas, which had been little more than glorified towns prior to the Civil War, had undergone a break-neck pace of expansion as a result of the economic growth of the industrial revolution and the wave upon wave of immigrants who came to this country in the 1890s and 1900s. Trolleys were needed to overcome the greater distance of a city environment beset by urban sprawl. By linking neighborhoods to downtown businesses and industrial centers and by utilizing special rights-of-way, in conjunction with other rail-based mass transit systems, the trolley was able to provide shoppers and workers with an inexpensive and efficient way of overcoming the increased distances of the new urban setting. The use of trolleys also helped to alleviate the increased traffic congestion of the modern American city by carrying large numbers of passengers in one vehicle.

Although ideal for the densely populated areas of urban America, the versatility of the trolley made it an appropriate mode of transportation for less heavily populated areas of the country as well. Since most parts of the nation had only poorly maintained country roads to link them to the larger commercial centers, the alternative of travel by rail proved to be more effective and exceedingly more popular. In our own Lehigh Valley, an extensive network of trolley tracks blanketed the counties of Lehigh and Northampton. These shiny ribbons of metal track connected the smallest of communities to the larger urban centers of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton. Just as smaller towns were linked to their larger neighbors, so too were these medium-sized communities connected to the larger cities of a region via the trolley. These interurban trolleys linked major cities in the East and in the Midwest to the numerous outlying districts of their region. Allentown’s Liberty Bell commuter trolley line made it possible for a resident of the Lehigh Valley to travel the fifty-odd miles to Philadelphia at very minimal cost, merely by transferring from the local trolley to the Liberty Bell, which in turn fed into the extensive trolley system of the City of Brotherly Love.

In the Midwest, the interurban trolley concept proved to be a particularly valuable system of transportation for the numerous small towns, “Main Street” type communities that dotted its countryside. Due to the great distances of the Midwestern region, it was uneconomical for the trains of the giant railroad corporations to stop at every little country hamlet and backwater town. Nevertheless, some form of commuter service was needed to link these farming communities to the markets of big cities. The speedy interurbans of Illinois, Ohio, and Indiana filled this need by carrying people, farm produce, and mail between tiny hamlet and urban colossus.

Trolleys also served in a leisure capacity as special excursion lines that operated on Sundays and during the warmer months. For the first time ever, the residents of the new industrial cities were easily connected to numerous parks, seaside and lake-front resorts, as well as the newly-created amusement parks that had sprung up in the 1890s. All this was possible because of the trolley.

However, the success of the trolley car was short lived. Despite its versatility as a mode of transportation, it could not survive the onslaught of the automobile with its appealing emphasis on individual freedom of movement. The cheap cost of gasoline in an age of energy abundance, coupled with the mismanagement of many of the private street traction companies and the rising power and influence of the highway trust lobby, caused the trolley system to decline rapidly to the point where only 225 miles of trolley track were in use in just eight American cities at the close of the 1970s.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, our society had become extremely dependent upon the automobile as practically the sole source of urban-oriented transportation. While an extensive system of interstate and state highways gave the car an accessibility never before dreamed of, the mass transit systems of most American cities were allowed to deteriorate drastically, and the concept of trolley or light rail transit was relegated to the realm of nostalgia.

But by the mid-1970s, things began to change. Highways became more and more congested as they became the chief routes of commuters and truck transport. The emergence of an energy crisis caused the price of gasoline to soar higher and faster than it had ever gone before. Even the American dream of a two-car family had turned into a nightmare as the cost of owning and maintaining a car continued to rise, creating an added economic burden for the consumer in an era of severe inflation. Yet, for the most part, Americans were trapped. The two-car concept had emerged as much from economic necessity in our sprawling, highly mobile society as it had from the quest for status. No alternative to the car really seemed to exist outside of a few major cities that had managed to retain their old, comprehensive mass-transit systems.

In such an environment as this, the trolley or light rail vehicle, as it is known to the modern world, is making a comeback. Oil-rich Edmonton, Canada has had a light-rail transit line in operation since April of 1978 and it has become so popular that the residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and suburban communities have been clamoring for an extension of the line to their areas. San Diego and Buffalo are both presently finishing construction of light rail transit (LRT) lines that should be completed in 1981 and 1984, respectively. Cities such as Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Newark that have older light-rail lines still in operation are working to revamp their systems, renovate the stations, and upgrade the conditions of both the track and the service.

Light rail transit has such potential as a viable alternative to automobile-based travel that other cities are considering establishing LRT lines of their own to combat the twin nemeses of energy scarcity and suburban sprawl-induced highway congestion. Cities such as Detroit, Mich., Baltimore, Md.; Portland, Or.; Dayton, Ohio; Denver, Colo.; Louisville, Ky.; and Rochester, NY are all considering the light rail option. Even the cities of the energy-rich Sun Belt region are looking at light rail as a way of alleviating the transportation difficulties they face. San Jose, Calif.; El Paso, TX., and Houston, TX. are all considering light rail transit as a potential transportation system for their urban settings.

Although the nature of the modern trolley or light rail vehicle (LRV) is based on the same principles of the earlier trolleys, the modern-day version is much sleeker than the older trolleys. Today’s LRV is extremely efficient and has a smoother and much more quiet ride than its screechy and jerky turn-of-the-century cousin. It is still electrically powered, but it can now reach speeds of fifty miles an hour and better. These improved speeds coupled with the use of special LRT rights-of-way have made light rail transit not only comparable to highway travel times by automobile but also far more dependable, since its special right-of-way insures that the light rail vehicle will never experience the slow, crawling speeds that are the result of peak-hour highway congestion. The LRV has the added benefits of being quieter than a diesel bus, more energy-efficient than a trackless trolley or conventional inner-city bus, and its use of electricity as its energy source makes it almost completely pollution-free.

The LRV has many other noteworthy attributes as well. It has a high carrier capacity at a low labor cost, since the most recent models can carry from 500 to 1000 passengers in only four linked cars that are operated by just one driver. It is an extremely fluid mode of transportation, capable of running on a private right-of-way, a railroad right-of-way, in subway tunnels (as is done in Boston and Edmonton), on elevated track, or in the street on conventional trolley track. However, probably the most significant feature of the LRT is that in these days of fiscal austerity, it is relatively cheap in comparison to other modes of transportation. The San Diego project alluded to above will cost only $73 million to $86 million. When one compares the roughly $5 million per mile cost for the 16 miles of the Tijuana Trolley project (so dubbed for the fact that it links downtown San Diego to the Mexican border town of Tijuana) with other such transportation project costs, the difference is quite significant. The Washington, DC Metro subway cost $34 million for every mile constructed, and the half a billion dollar price tag of the proposed 36-mile I-78 south highway project amounts to a cost of $10.5 to $17 million for every mile of constructed road. Even the period of time needed in which to complete the construction of a light rail transit project is much more favorable when compared to the amount of time needed to finish a highway project. The San Diego LRT will be completed after only two years of construction with no cost overruns. The I-78 project will take nearly a decade to complete and will no doubt cost much more than its initial $400 million figure, since the rising cost for a highway project seems rather inevitable in light of the effects of inflation on the cost of construction, labor, and materials over a ten year period of time.

Another factor to keep in mind when examining the nature of modern light rail transit is that it does not replace existing bus-oriented mass transportation systems. If anything, light rail transit works in conjunction with existing bus mass transit systems and improves them by greatly reducing the time element involved in using public transportation facilities.

One of the major drawbacks of a purely bus-based public transit system is that, with the exception of cities that have space enough to create bus-only express lanes, the inner-city bus is just as prone to the slow crawl effects of traffic congestion as is the peak hour highway commuter who travels by car. Moreover, travel by a purely bus-based public transit system is likely to take up to 40% longer than commuting by car, since buses are confined to set, and often times twisting, routes in order to reach the greatest number of people. The addition of a light rail line to a purely bus-oriented mass transit system makes it possible to significantly reduce public transportation travel time to the point where it is on a par with the shorter travel time of an auto. The joining of light rail with buses into one integrated transit system makes for a public transportation system that can offer a truly viable alternative to the automobile. What must be recognized is that buses are the heart of a transit system and the LRT lines are its spine. The more localized bus routes feed into the light rail line at a limited number of centrally-located stations from which the mass transit rider can take an LRV to key centers of urban concentration and activity such as a downtown, a shopping mall, or an industrial park. An LRT based transit system also has the added feature of being, like the trolleys of old, ideally suited for either a high or a low density population due to its cheap cost and flexible nature.

Finally, the use of light rail transit has a number of spin-off effects that are extremely positive in terms of our increasingly limited resources and the present nature of unlimited suburban development with its myriad of severe negative side effects. Aside from its most obvious features of helping to conserve energy and alleviate highway and inner-city traffic congestion, light rail transit is also one of the most effective ways to bring about urban revitalization.

Whereas the establishment of an extensive highway system greatly facilitated the development of suburban sprawl and inner-city decline, the creation of an LRT line shifts the focal point of development back into the inner city where it is most needed. It is a basic fact of societal development that the type of transportation system that our society creates to meet its transportation needs will, in turn, have an uncanny way of creating a new society.

America’s history is full of numerous examples of how transportation systems have molded the raw substance of our society. From the narrow Indian paths of colonial times, to the extensive canal systems of the 1830s and 40s. From the Iron Horse that opened up to development a vast prairie expanse, to those massive concrete highways that became the asphalt umbilical cords of a hundred Levittowns, connecting them to their now aged city mothers. Each new mode of transportation that has been able to become the dominant form of transportation in this country has managed to greatly shape the nature of our society’s psychological outlook and physical development.

So it would be with the establishment of a system of light rail transit. As a permanent transit fixture, an LRT line would prove to be a very effective way of ensuring a more comprehensive and planned way of approaching urban and suburban development. The existence of the line in the downtown area would greatly facilitate the channeling of development back to the inner city setting. Furthermore, extensions of such a line would be able to direct the nature of development so that it would fit the needs of the overall community.

If anyone seriously doubts the revitalizing effects that an LRT line can have on an urban area, one has only to look at the case of Toronto, where the establishment of a light rail system in 1954 cost $67 million but encouraged over $10 billion of real estate development within the city. Likewise, the Buffalo LRT project is expected to create a total of 2800 construction jobs as well as 4700 spin-off jobs due to the stimulating effect it will have on that presently depressed northeastern city’s downtown.

The lesson to be learned from all of this is that our own Lehigh Valley could gain greatly from the establishment of a light rail transit line in the twin county area that comprises this region. For the Valley is beginning to face its own crises in transportation and urban-suburban development. We have the same problems of urban decay, suburban sprawl, and inner city and highway traffic congestion that are presently taking their toll on other urban and semi-urban parts of the country. Furthermore our world is beset by an energy crisis that cries out for the use of much more energy-efficient modes of transportation than the car. Given these reasons, it is incumbent upon us to establish a light rail transit line for the Lehigh Valley that will allow us to reap the many benefits that such a transit system has to offer us in our efforts to maintain and expand the quality of our urban and suburban settings.

A Lehigh Valley light rail transit line could utilize existing railroad rights-of-way in Northampton and Lehigh Counties that have been either abandoned by the railroad companies, used in only a very limited capacity as temporary storage areas for box cars, or traveled upon very infrequently. A special right-of-way such as this would ensure regular and speedy service and would make it possible for the LRT patron to travel the 18-odd miles between downtown Easton and downtown Allentown in only twenty to twenty-five minutes of traveling time.

A Lehigh Valley LRT line could use the old railroad right-of-way of the New Jersey Central Railroad which lies just north of the Lehigh River and runs parallel with the river from Easton to Bethlehem. This right of way is entirely abandoned from Easton to Freemansburg and is only very lightly used from Freemansburg to Bethlehem by Conrail. What is more, it is wide enough to contain two sets of track, which would allow for one to act as a westbound lane and the other eastbound.

By utilizing two tracks at the same time, it would be possible to run a number of light rail vehicles along the route, traveling in a very elongated loop pattern from Easton to Allentown, and thereby making it possible for the LRT line to offer a greater frequency of service. Since the LRVs would not have to share the same set of tracks for both east and west bound journeys, they could provide service between the three communities as often as it would be deemed necessary.

From Bethlehem, the line would then swing north-northwest in a somewhat parallel course with Rte. 378, swinging in an arc formation along the northern boundaries of west Bethlehem and east Allentown. This western end of the LRT line would primarily utilize the Lehigh and New England Railroad right-of-way which stretches in an upside down crescent shape from the old New Jersey Central Railroad tracks north of the Lehigh River in Bethlehem to just within a few feet of Hanover Avenue in east Allentown where the line runs parallel to Dauphin Street. Although the Lehigh and New England Railroad right-of-way presently contains only one set of track, there is ample room for two sets of tracks so as to facilitate the continuation of both east and westbound service simultaneously. Even without two sets of track along the L & N E route, a number of passing sidings could be established to ensure a proper flow of traffic.

The LRT line would run primarily on these two rights of way to ensure speedy and regular service. However, the line would deviate from these rights-of-way at three points where it would actually run on the street as a conventional trolley does. These deviations are needed in order to link up with the LANTA bus system and to bring the line into the heart of the downtown districts of each of the three cities of the Lehigh Valley. This will create a fully integrated mass transit system and would bring more people into the business districts of the downtowns.

In Easton, the LRT line would veer off from the Jersey Central Railroad right-of-way onto Lehigh Drive right before entering the city. From Lehigh Drive, it would run down South 4th Street, right onto Ferry, left onto South 3rd, and around the Circle until it reached the LANTA bus transfer station on Northampton Street between 3rd and 4th Streets. Here it would be possible for riders to transfer from bus to LRV or from LRV to bus. The line would then head west on Northampton, left onto South 4th Street, and hook up with the Jersey Central right-of-way at the site of its former railroad station at 4th and Washington Streets.

In Bethlehem, the LRT line would deviate from the railroad tracks and proceed north on Main, right onto North Street, right onto New, and right onto Church Street where it would loop back into the right of way of the L & N E Railroad line. This would make it possible for the LRV to meet LANTA buses at both the Broad and Main and Broad and New transfer stations.

In Allentown, the LRT line would emerge from the Lehigh and New England right-of-way onto Hanover Avenue, proceeding westbound over the Hamilton Street bridge, turning right onto Front Street, left onto Linden, left onto 9th, left onto Hamilton, and back across the bridge to Hanover Avenue where it would return to the L & N E right-of-way. Such a loop as this would bring the LRV to the 9th Street transfer station for the Allentown LANTA buses and would allow the LRV to proceed straight through the center of town down Hamilton Mall.

Such a route as this would give the LRT patron access to all of the governmental, commercial, and entertainment facilities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton as well as all of the LANTA bus routes. For the LRV rider who does not wish to use the bus system in conjunction with the light rail transit, a number of park and ride facilities could be set up at key locations in the three Lehigh Valley cities. Allentown’s park and ride could be located on the vacant land near the old Phoenix Clothes building on Hamilton Street; Bethlehem’s could utilize the parking spaces under the Main Street bridge that is presently part of Monocacy Park, and the Easton park and ride lot could be located on the vacant space where the Jersey Central Railroad station used to be, at 4th and Washington Streets.

Although initially only seven stops (the four downtown locations and the three park and ride lots) would be available along the route of the LRT line, others could be established as the need or desire warrants. There could be light rail transit stops that would coincide with shift changes at the industrial plants of West Easton, the Western Electric Company on Union Boulevard, and the Durkee’s plant on 8th Avenue just south of Eaton Avenue. Stops could also be established in Freemansburg, Old Orchard in Palmer Township, as well as a block away from the Martin Towers in Bethlehem. With the possible creation of new LRT lines that would extend through south Allentown to Emmaus or north along the river through the Catasauqua-Northampton-Coplay area, other stops and stations would also be established.

Such an LRT line as the one described above would provide not only a safe and speedy mass transit east-west corridor with which to link the three major cities of the Lehigh Valley, but would also serve as a valuable tool with which to solve many of the urban and transportation problems that greatly affect our region. The LRT line would no doubt foster the construction of new inner city housing which would, in turn, revitalize many of the downtown businesses. With such a transportation system at one’s very doorstep, it would be very appealing to live in a revitalized downtown environment. The proximity of a city dweller to the LRT line would give that person access to any part of the Valley in only a matter of minutes and save him all of the headaches that accompany inner city and highway traffic congestion.

Moreover, an I-78 south highway would encourage suburban sprawl, damage the environment, and only alleviate some 10 to 30% of Route 22 congestion at a very exorbitant price; an LRT line would suffer from none of these pitfalls and would actually help to eradicate the problems that highways create. Light rail would cost only 20% of the overall cost of I-78 (judging from the San Diego LRT project); it would not create further suburban sprawl; and it would be a very energy-wise way of solving the congestion problem on Route 22. As to the question of funding, it may be quite possible to trade in the highway trust funds earmarked for I-78 for a light rail project. UMTA (Urban Mass Transit Administration) has used this policy in the past in regard to other highway-mass transit project trade-ins, and could quite likely be persuaded to follow this course of action again. Even if a trade-in would be prohibited, UMTA has shown itself to be very generous with granting federal funding for LRT projects as it did in Buffalo, NY, where 80% of the tab is being picked up by Uncle Sam.

At any rate, the inexpensive nature of a Lehigh Valley LRT project coupled with the added benefits it would bring to our area in terms of urban revitalization, reducing auto pollution and congestion, saving energy, providing jobs, and greatly enhancing the quality of life in our Valley, makes such a project well worth our while.

—Bob Freeman, New Valley Press, April 1981

This entry was posted in Place & Infrastructure, Transportation.

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