Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Monorail! It's not just a 'Simpsons' sketch

Four years ago I wrote a column about how our roads are screwed up but we will never get away from the automobile since the economy is all wrapped up in the car. I suggested we sink money into monorails, which are (in a word) cool. Sunday in the Register I may write more on this concept. The following is my original column. Please send me your ideas on this:

Ride the rail north — into 'Autoford'
Joe Amarante

News items: April car sales were up; New Haven's mayor says the city is being shortchanged on state funds for major road reconstruction; another SUV rolls over in a terrible accident.
So much of American life is tied up in the automobile. It has led to economic expansion, suburban culture (white flight, too), environmental pollution and so much more. But is it possible to imagine a modern world with less of a reliance on cars?
Whoa, you say, where would people smoke cigarettes in tiny enclosed spaces? Where would unmarried people make out? How would you show fellow townsfolk that you make more money?People who take the bus already spend little of their lives in a car, but buses haven't changed much in our lifetimes. They're noisy, pollute the air and rattle as they hit nearly every storm drain along the main road. Trains? Light rail? Bicycles? Nice idea; now move to China.In a column last summer, I suggested we make New Haven special by constructing, among other things like fountains, a monorail in the city. People responded to this column by urging more resources be spent on open space, the local airport and arts institutions (all worthy), but I'm not hearing much about the monorail.Well it turns out there is a Monorail Society, with 2,100 members in 64 countries, (now 4,800 in 83 countries) promoting the concept of monorails. "Monorails are not just for theme parks and zoos!" reads the Web site, www.monorails.org Nor are they just for "Music Man" takeoffs on "The Simpsons" (very funny nonetheless).The Tokyo monorail is operated by a private business and turns a profit each year, says the monorail backers. The "graceful arched guideway" at Walt Disney World features a beam that is only 26 inches wide and leaves a small shadow on the ground. (Some of us could stand to cast a smaller shadow.)So a monorail is aesthetically nicer than a heavy rail or light rail solution to transit problems. Subways are a monster public works project, but a monorail can be installed by digging a hole, dropping in a pre-built support pylon, attaching track that is built off-site and attaching the cars, which operate at a 99.9 percent reliability, say backers.Rubber tires contact the guideway and last some 100,000 miles. Other systems, called maglev for magnetic levitation, are also worth considering (although they require a thicker track).I tried to imagine a monorail originating in downtown New Haven and stretching out into the suburbs to other Connecticut cities. I drove up Route 5 the other day with an eye for this.OK, overhead wires and stoplights would be a problem, for sure. But the city would be a great location for the quiet and sleek monorail. There are successful monorails in Seattle and Las Vegas right now, for instance.On Route 5 in North Haven, the land is relatively open and flat as you head out past the used-car garages, the credit union office, the auto stereo installer, the auto parts store, Acme Auto and the Acura-BMW-Mercedes dealership.You go out past the outdoor billboard for the VW dealership, the Daewoo-Porsche-Audi place, the "special metals" factory and you're in Wallingford.Ah, Wallingord, home of Little League giants and acres of gleaming glass and steel along Route 5. They should call it Autoford.There you'll see an auto-detailing business, some used-car lots, Cytec (motto: It's not soylent green), the Chevy-Isuzu dealer, the Pontiac-Kia-Nissan dealer, the Subaru dealer, the Mitsubishi dealer, the Mercury-Lincoln dealer and (as you approach Meriden) the Hyundai and Honda dealers.At the Toyota dealer on Route 5, where I spent an hour or two last week, the place looks like an amusement park compared to the corner repair shop. Doughnuts in the waiting room, a playscape for young children, a parts store that looks more like a gift shop.The place was buzzing with salespeople, service people (one guy makes sure your car is washed after it's serviced), finance people and support staff. The newspaper in the waiting area makes money from car advertising, and the town government a few miles away runs partly on the property taxes the cars sold outside will generate. A few of those cars cost nearly as much as my house did in 1979.Just off Route 5 are the "auto salvage" yards that deal in "used parts." There are auto body shops, car washes and (of course) lawyers who specialize in suits resulting from car accidents. My insurance agent's office is there, too.You get the point. We're all in this too deep to give up our car-crazy way of life. Cars are more than just a symbol of our rugged American individualism; they are stitched into the fabric of our lives and livelihoods so thoroughly that if all gasoline disappeared tomorrow, we'd have a new fuel in place by next week.Monorail and light-rail systems require a great commitment of resources and sacrifice — something the average auto driver will never stand (or sit) for.
Contact Joe Amarante at (203) 789-5675 or jamarante@ctcentral.com

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