NWA is perfect for light rail, says UA professor

“Name one city the size of Fayetteville that is effectively using a light rail system,” asked one citizen last night at the “Visioning Rail Transit” discussion meeting in the Fayetteville Public Library. “There are no cities the size of Fayetteville using a system like this,” said presenter Steve Luoni.

But by the time a light rail plan is created and implemented, the four major cities in Northwest Arkansas will have reached a population density so high that light rail will be a perfect fit stressed Luoni, who is director of the University of Arkansas’s Community Design Center. “We could be a model and we could have the system before the population arrives,” he told the group of over 150 in attendance.

Dickson St. of the future?

As the sixth fastest growing region in the nation, NWA is expected to double its population over the next 15 years to eventually reach more than one million by 2050. Obviously, with that much growth in such a short amount of time, our region could very well end up sprawling outwards. But advocates say that with proper planning, light rail systems help to create organized density. And there’s no better time to start the planning than now, said Luoni.

With its linear geographic shape and a rail line already in place, it’s hard to imagine Northwest Arkansas completely abandoning the idea of light rail, especially with an impending population explosion. Some regions have spent nearly 50 years developing a light rail system which is why Luoni wants to start the process as soon as possible.

But the cost of the project has some folks worried. Cost, says Luoni, isn’t the issue, though. “The money is already there,” he said in response to a few questions about funding. It’s just a matter of prioritizing what’s already being generated, he told the crowd. Besides, he added, some light rail systems are funded largely in part by the private sector.

A feasibility study would cost at least $1 million and this particular rail system itself could carry a price tag of nearly $1 billion. Luoni noted that in just one year, the United States spent enough money on the war in Iraq to fully fund over 200 light rail systems across the country.

So what are the next steps? Luoni says that regardless of where they stand on the issue of light rail, the most important thing citizens can do is let their federal, state and local representatives know what they think.

Those in attendance received a copy of NWA Rail – Visioning Rail Transit in Northwest Arkansas: Lifestyles and Ecologies. A full PDF download of the book is available by clicking here or by visiting the project’s website.

Ozarks Unbound has more.
Make sure to check out Christopher Spencer’s coverage of last night’s meeting at Ozarks Unbound. Chris has a story, raw audio and interviews with both Steve Luoni and a local citizen.