January 12, 2002

Public transit, it seems, has no shortage of vocal advocates but when the roll of regular patrons and those willing to lend meaningful support is called, the response is muted.

"Everyone thinks it's a good idea -- for someone else," said Ted Matley, executive director of the Wilmington Area Planning Council, "But are we connecting our rhetoric with our actions?"

Matley and the council raise the issue in relatively strong terms in the current issue of the council's newsletter and indicate that something of a crossroads has been reached. "The critical issue will be whether we will continue to follow through on transit projects or whether they will be dropped once it's time to commit funds," the article said.

In an interview with Delaforum, Matley said he is "not pessimistic about the ability of public transit to perform, but transit can't perform unless it is supported."

The proposal to link Wilmington and Dover with rail service by upgrading a sparsely used but existing freight line is likely to provide a good test of will on the part of both government and the business sector. On paper, at least, the idea seems practical to the extent it would not have to be a from-scratch venture.

Moreover, Matley said, "it is a powerful idea to connect the state capital with the dominant concentration of economic activity" and that is further enhanced by the fact the route passes through southern New Castle County, the area most certain to see future growth.

He added that he doesn't regard an apparently long gestation period -- 2010 has been cited as a realistic target date for the project to become a reality -- as a deterrent. Environmental and design work and, more to the point, the fact that planning and actual construction necessarily have to be accomplished parallel to other transportation projects will require that extended a schedule.

The fact that one-time rail excursions to the state fair and auto races were successful in attracting patronage does not mean that simply running rail cars back and forth would work, he said.. "It has to be done right if you're going to attract people on a regular basis," he said.

While a Dover-Wilmington rail line has been presented as a potential, the planning council is at the beginning stage of pursuing the possibility of a regional transit system for northern New Castle County. It is about to award a consultant contract to conduct a feasibility study. So-called light rail service, which might take the form of a monorail system, has been advanced as a core element of such a system.

Whatever form it might take, a regional system is "an idea that is don't think is going to go away," Matley said.

In both the interview and the newsletter articles, he raised the point that inability to must public support and governmental action could prevent its realization.

Tough economic times, he said, provide a valid test of the level of commitment. "Our elected leaders say they are in favor of it but we can't afford it. What that really said is that it isn't a priority," he said.

That is showing up at the national level where Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, is in danger of being liquidated. "It's being told it has to be self-supporting, but Congress won't let it cut services which can't be self-supporting," he said.

The alternative on the local level to an attractive transit system is what Matley calls a 'fringe' system. "We have to have a transit system because a large segment of our population requires it." But that necessarily will result in the large majority of the population continuing to rely on automobiles for personal, and mostly solo, transportation, he said.

"People say they don't take public transportation because it's not convenient and frequent enough. But the reason it isn't more convenient and frequent is that too few people are using it," he said.

"When it comes to transit, we're saying the right things. But are we taking the correct actions?"

2002. All rights reserved.

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