My first experience with light rail came living in San Diego in the early 1980s. One segment linked downtown with the border crossing at San Ysidro. It was popular and uncontroversial. "I didn't think one of these could run without graffiti all over it," I heard a visitor from then dysfunctional New York exclaim of the new, bright red trainsets. As a reporter, I wrote about the Trolley, especially the ambitious expansion plans. San Diego is the most Republican of California's big cities, but the light-rail system was begun under Pete Wilson, a mediocre U.S. senator, bad California governor, but stellar San Diego mayor (he was also, along with developer Ernest Hahn, the father of the spectacularly revived downtown). Today, the San Diego Trolley extends 53 miles on three routes.
Then I lived in Denver, where the city started a segment downtown. It too, was popular and widely embraced. Now it comprises 39 miles with another 12 due in two years. I was in Charlotte for the planning of the now-operating Lynx light-rail, a relatively modest 10 miles, but more is in the works. It was the first modern light-rail system in the Old South and, again, widely supported, especially by the business leadership and developers who built hundreds of millions of dollars of projects near the line. Similar success happened in other cities, especially Dallas (!), with its 72-mile system and clammoring of suburbs to get the next line.
The story didn't play out that way in Phoenix. Yes, we built it, you bastards. But it's also time to take stock.