It's hard to find a city in America that isn't planning, proposing, studying or actually building a light rail system. Cities as diverse as Dallas, Seattle and Washington, D.C., all see light rail as part of their future -- a way to reshape their development.
There are 35 light rail systems operating in the U.S. today. At least 13 metro areas are currently building others. Many more are being planned.
Perhaps the most ambitious light rail project in the country is being built in Denver. Downtown, behind Union Station, lies a cityscape that doesn't quite exist yet.
Much of the area is empty, fenced off. Construction crews are digging a huge hole in the ground in preparation for some of the final stages of a multiyear transportation project that is already changing the city.
East West Partners, a real estate development company, is doing much of the work around Union Station. They own or have the rights to buy much of the land. Even in the midst of a real estate collapse, Chris Frampton, one of the partners in the company, is bullish about light rail. As he walked toward Union Station from the riverfront condos his company developed recently, light rail trains whispered by, their electric motors almost silent.
"Right here next to us is going to be the new [headquarters] of DaVita," says Frampton, pointing at an area void of anything but dirt. "They're moving here from El Segundo, Calif. And they picked this site, 100 percent, because it's next to light rail."
Frampton pointed to a building around the corner, Gates Rubber Co. Half of their 300 employees already take the light rail to work, he said.
"Trains make all that possible," Frampton says.
And it's not just in Denver. In Salt Lake City, Phoenix, San Diego and other cities large and small, light rail is taking off. The trains look more like streetcars than anything else. They're only one or two cars long, and are electrically powered. The narrow footprint of light rail cars allows them to be put in dense urban areas, on already crowded streets.
"There are very few major metropolitan areas in the country that aren't considering the installation of some sort of light rail system," says Robert Puentes, a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution. He stresses that the car is still king, but says politicians, businessmen and developers are looking to light rail to help guide development.
"Light rail stops create nodes and create opportunities for denser development," says Frampton. "So you don't end up using up roads and using up sewers, and building new police stations and water lines and so on."
Tom Clark, of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, says that when the conversations first began about mass transit, "it sounded a little bit too close to socialism for some of us." What changed the business community's mind, he says, were simple economics.
"We had a worker housing problem. The roads were getting congested enough that workers from the north side could no longer commute by car to the south side. They needed an alternative."
The current downturn has meant that there have been fewer sales tax revenues, which are paying for the system, and costs have spiraled upward. And in a new era of cutbacks, it's not clear if more money from the federal government is coming either. But even so, cities with the same problems that Denver has had want to know how Denver officials convinced a car culture to turn to mass transit.
In Washington, D.C., light rail is being installed in areas that don't have any rail service at the moment, such as historically African-American neighborhoods. H Street was once one of the busiest commercial districts in the city, but it never really recovered from the riots of 1968. Now the city is hoping to change that. For months now, the street has been ripped up as crews have been laying track.
Tiffany Harding is a commuter and a resident of the area. The other day, as she stood in the cold on H Street, she expressed hopes that light rail would change the neighborhood and the city.
"You'd get more people coming, and you'd get better businesses and ... well, let me put it this way, it'd be easier to move around," she said.
More and more civic leaders across the country are talking about how cities need to become magnets for talent in order to become truly world-class cities. Many of those leaders see light rail as part of that transformation.
Puentes, of Brookings, says that American cities now have to compete globally.
"They're going to have to be able to attract young, qualified workers, and it's going to take a robust transportation system to move these folks around. In case after case, we're seeing that that is what these folks are looking for."