King of the rail

Mongiardo unveils massive public transit plan in Louisville

Last week, in the lobby of TARC’s downtown Union Station headquarters — where less than a century ago the blowing of train whistles and the clacking of wheels on rail were commonplace — Lt. Gov. and Democratic Senate candidate Daniel Mongiardo unveiled the boldest vision for public transportation that Louisville and the commonwealth-at-large have seen since the construction of interstates 50 years ago.

Dubbed the “21st Century Public Transit & Jobs Plan,” Mongiardo’s $1 billion-plus proposal would provide intra-city transit to Louisvillians going to and from work by way of an elevated, state-of-the-art monorail circulator, as well as connect Jefferson County to other regions via a light-rail network built upon existing tracks. Additionally, park-and-ride stations would be constructed at outlying nodes, and TARC’s fleet of buses would tailor new routes to serve those locations.

“A comprehensive and fully integrated public transit system will spur revitalization and smart growth efforts not only in Louisville’s core,” Mongiardo said, “but also in some of the smaller, rural communities through where (sic) the hybrid light-rail lines run.”

Co-sponsored by the grassroots Coalition for the Advancement of Regional Transportation — which has thus far invited all senatorial candidates to speak about transportation issues — Mongiardo’s presentation consisted of a general description of the plan’s four main components, their implementation and economic impact, as well as (to a certain extent) discussion of funding.

The initial phase would create a rapid access monorail (RAM) running downtown (the northernmost stops being the new downtown arena and a “commuter collection point” at 26th and Main streets) and traveling south with major stops at the U of L Medical Center, U of L’s Belknap campus, Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Fair & Exposition Center, and — pending a hypothetical expansion of the hypothetical plan — with terminating points at UPS and Ford. Fully automated, Epcot-esque people-movers would arrive every few minutes, ferry up to 30 passengers at a time and travel up to 55 miles per hour along an elevated rail that would not interfere with traditional rights-of-way.

At $1.05 billion, the plan is relatively inexpensive when compared with other rail projects, notably Southern California’s proposed $5 billion light-rail system. The Louisville RAM’s first phase would cost approximately $198 million, following the aforementioned route, with expansions into Louisville’s isolated West End and the South End’s UPS hub totaling $230 million, and another $150 million for additional, dedicated circulators downtown and on U of L’s campus. The regional hybrid light-rail system — which would ultimately connect Clarksville, the Gene Snyder Freeway (at Middletown), Crestwood, Taylorsville Road, the Gene Snyder at National Turnpike, the Gene Snyder at Dixie Highway and Grant Line Road in New Albany — has a price tag of $475 million.

Charles Schimpeler, lead architect of the plan, whose engineering firm has completed similar projects in Miami and Los Angeles, said that due to the nature of current monorail technology and the simplicity of constructing a route above and parallel to traffic, intra-city monorail would cost only $9 million per mile.

“That’s far lower than the cost of the T2 line,” said Schimpeler, “which would’ve cost roughly $60 million per mile.”

The “T2 line,” if you recall, was an ill-fated attempt to create something similar to Mongiardo’s proposal in 2004, but was scrapped due to its hefty price tag and lack of political support, the latter of which can be attributed to two pavement-friendly Republican senators and then-Rep. Anne Northup.

To hear the lieutenant governor’s opinion on the matter, all that’s needed to make his PowerPoint presentation reality is a senator with the stones to move state transportation dollars away from highway funding and back into public transit coffers. While some of this is clearly campaign posturing, Mongiardo is not entirely off base.

“He’s right,” said David Morse, president of CART. “We need a political leader to change the rules that are screwing us on the federal level. Currently we don’t have that leader, so our money stays tied up in roads and highways.”

In 2007, Kentucky received less than a quarter of the $87 million in highway tax money it sent to Washington. For every dollar the state spends on public transportation by way of the federal gas tax, 80 cents goes toward the highway fund, whereas only 20 cents is reserved for public transit. The economic multiplier effect that properly funded, efficient systems like this one tend to generate cannot be overlooked — for every dollar spent on such systems, $4 is yielded via new construction created around transport hubs, raising property values and creating greater access to jobs, etc. This is at the crux of Mongiardo’s argument for rail.

“If Kentucky is left out of a federal high-speed rail network,” the candidate began, “I fear the economic consequences to our commonwealth will be like those communities left out of the federal Interstate Highway System.”

Since Mongiardo has presented this initiative as a candidate and not as sitting lieutenant governor, the future of regional public transportation in the commonwealth is therefore subject to the political winds of the 2010 Senate election. His opponent in next year’s Democratic primary, state Attorney General Jack Conway, has responded in kind by using Mongiardo’s economic argument against him.

“Job creation and infrastructure improvement are top priorities for me as Kentucky’s next U.S. Senator,” said Conway in a written statement, “but we must remain rooted in reality, especially in these trying economic times.”

While Conway supports such “forward-thinking projects,” he invoked the priority of the $4.1 billion Ohio River Bridges Project as a more immediate, (literally) concrete means to address the commonwealth’s economic stressors, then proceeded to associate the program with the current gubernatorial administration’s fiscal policies.

“At a time when state agencies are being asked by the Beshear/Mongiardo administration to cut funds by 6 percent across the board,” Conway continued, “and the state Department of Education has responded by proposing to cut $20 million over the next fiscal year, we must be realistic in pursuing new projects that require state funding.”

Whether the plan survives beyond the primary’s “political football” phase will largely be a testament to how committed Kentucky’s next generation of senators are to alternative forms of transportation.