Group says tram´s benefits worth Europe trip
A clean, quiet tram ride from downtown Champaign to Lincoln Square - or through it to the federal courthouse - could revitalize businesses all along its path.
A state-of-the-art tram could also mean, for the struggling Lincoln Square, its conversion to a rail station. Almost certain to be part of the plan is Stone Arch Village, a planned area that will replace Burnham City Hospital and its neighbors. It's on a straight line from the Illi-
nois Terminal to the Illini Union.
To Champaign City Council member Tom Bruno, a light rail will almost certainly benefit economic development in slow-growing Champaign-Urbana.
Heck, it might even benefit his economic development.
?I'd love to be the lawyer on the tram line,? said Bruno, whose Urbana law office is on Green Street. ?I would certainly get more business than the lawyer four blocks away from the tram line.?
Fourteen local officials took a nine-day, taxpayer-subsidized trip to Europe this month to investigate trams in France, Belgium and Holland at $2,250 a person, for a total of $31,500. Some of the same officials had earlier visited Portland, Ore.
But the officials say that figure is almost insignificant compared to the potential benefits of a cutting-edge transport system that could be used to put the cities on the map of high-tech communities.
There are also benefits that are incalculable, such as the replacement of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles on the road with a clean electric tram, says Urbana Alderwoman Laura Huth, whose day job is director of the Illinois Student Environmental Network.
The officials are leaning toward electric trams, more environmentally friendly but often more costly to start up. Bruno said batteries in the trams can allow them to travel briefly without overhead lines where those would be unsightly. Huth notes that permanent tram stops would be level with entrances, making them accessible to those in wheelchairs or with vision problems.
Huth said she has talked with developers in the Lincoln Square area about having a train station near the county and federal courthouses. Broadway Avenue has a prominent place in Urbana's economic redevelopment plans, she adds.
?These tramways are really very flexible; they can turn 90 degrees or run an S-curve,? she said. ?A tram we looked at could run through Lincoln Square's Green Street entrance and go out through the post office exit to the courthouse.?
Bill Volk, the executive director of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, said his trip to European cities in the size range of Champaign-Urbana convinced him that wherever there are tram stops, there's more business.
The contingent looked at several systems, all but one electric. Volk said that hearing the sounds, and smelling the smells, or lack thereof, associated with the car convinced him that the trip was the way to go.
Electric trams are nothing like the trolleys many envision when they pooh-pooh the idea of spending millions on rails, he said. They're quiet and smooth, much cleaner than a diesel bus, with no advertising, and they start and stop with none of the jarring experienced on a bus.
Irate radio callers last week said he could have checked the Internet to do the research.
?I suppose there are people somewhere who would buy a car or home on the Internet without first being in it,? he said. ?This is such a major expenditure that you want to know.?
Huth said Champaign-Urbana residents would gain from the tram with fewer local tax payouts than they might think, if staffers are diligent in securing federal and state grants.
?You see a lot of this sort of development north of Interstate 80,? she said. She said tax money Champaign-Urbana sends to Washington, D.C., would come back to the community in the form of the grants that could cover more than 50 percent of the total.
Other sources of money for the trams include bonds and fund raising, she added.
Bruno said the European experience is not so far from Champaign's as many want to believe.
?They want convenience and comfort, and they want their cars. Automobile ownership is very similar to that in the U.S.,? he said. ?They're just as affluent as we are. And the roads are just as crowded as ours.?
He said there's a misconception that somehow Europeans are more sophisticated about transportation than we are.
?It's just not true. Where there's no mass transit in Europe, they ride in cars. That's true everywhere; you go to Chicago, and there are people on mass transit, but not everybody's on the CTA,? Bruno said. ?They say people here don't use the light rail systems. Of course we don't. We don't have them!?
Volk said officials are looking 20 years into the future on the tram. He expects there will be growth, and with it traffic and parking problems. As downtown Champaign continues to grow as a nightclub center, he said, it's going to get nothing but harder to find a spot to park a car. The new Volition building will be putting further strain on parking in a matter of months.
?We don't have all the answers at this point. We've been looking at it for a year and will probably look at it for another year,? he said.
Bruno said growth without sprawl requires some sort of control over traffic.
?Everyone will still have an automobile. But if we can get 20, 30 percent out of their cars by using a fixed light rail, it will free up the roads for the rest of us,? he said.