October 17, 2021

Need to bring back the trolley

Over half a century ago, The Lehigh Valley Transit Company ended its trolley services throughout the Lehigh Valley, which was an essential means of transportation for the early half of the 20th Century.

College Hill, in Easton, was the first place to gain access to the electrical trolley in order to facilitate access to Lafayette College while in Allentown The Liberty Bell Line provided many residents with the only form of public transportation to Philadelphia.

After the automotive revolution swayed many of us to drive cars, the results brought the end of the Lehigh Valley Transit Company.

While many argue that there were a number of reasons as to why the streetcar lost its acceptance in America, many historians blame price caps, maintenance costs, and lack of ridership for the decline.

Years passed since the last streetcar has roamed throughout the Lehigh Valley and the way our community has evolved makes us wonder how we can improve our commuting conditions.

Many analysts are already observing that an increase in the population, as well as an overwhelming number of warehouses, have only made commuting times longer.

TRIP, an organization which researches transportation and traffic, developed a study in 2013 that analyzed the commuting conditions of the Lehigh Valley-Reading area.

In their study, they found that the overall number of miles traveled by vehicles in Pennsylvania increased by 15% since 1990 and expects this statistic to increase again by 15% by 2030.

TRIP finds that commuters in the Lehigh Valley-Reading area spend $410 million as a result of traffic congestion including time wasted in traffic, delays in the delivery of goods, and the fuel spent while sitting in traffic.

The study points out that one of the ways in which traffic congestion can be relieved is by implementing better mass-transit services for the public.

The Lehigh Valley has shown a lack of interest over the years regarding proper investment in public transportation and currently, the most popular method to get around without a car in Lehigh and Northampton County is by taking a bus by LANTA.

While the service has been a sigh of relief for many in the area who prefer, or depend on, mass-transit, many users are harsh in providing feedback about the service. According to Google Maps, it can take most riders up to 45 minutes to take a bus from the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in Downtown Easton to NCC, while on the other hand, most drivers could expect a 12-16 minute drive from the same place on any given day.

Some commuters at NCC like Cynthia Mukatash could benefit from a revitalization of our public transit system. While interviewing her, she was able to provide valuable feedback about what it’s like to depend on LANTA to get to school.

When asked about the time that it takes to get to school from where she lives near Downtown Allentown, Mukatash explained that on average it can take up to an hour and thirty minutes to get to school.

While the commute is treacherous, she uses that time to do other things, especially school work. Getting to school also means that she always needs to be aware of the bus schedule, but apps like Google Maps give her a fair idea of how long her morning commutes are going to be.

Buses often take longer to get the certain places because their restrained from taking major highways like Route 22 and 33, making the commutes are far longer than average.

The inconveniences add up for the many other commuters that take the bus. Most people that take a bus to NCC have to prepare themselves to lose almost an hour of productivity in exchange for certain inefficiencies. Others have noticed that their transit times can often double a 45 minute commute, as some students could spend up to over an hour getting to places like NCC.

As cities across the country look to provide their communities with a transportation system that is effective, many are looking to adopt the streetcar once more. Many urban developers argue that the streetcar has several benefits; for one, it is far cheaper to build a streetcar system than a metro system.

In cities like New York, the cost to build a mile-worth of subway tracks costs the city over $1 billion. On the other hand, Portland, Oregon spent $12 million for every mile built for their streetcar system, according to the city.

Some additional benefits about the streetcar is that they promote a stronger incentive for people to switch to public transit as opposed to buses. Many streetcar systems also have a visual appeal to them; Vox refers to it as a je ne sais quoi mentality. Basically, the illustrious capabilities as well as the impressive appearances of such a projects create a sense of interest for individuals to use these methods of transit, while buses often lackluster when compared.

When asked about investing more in public transportation, Mukatash brought up how some of the older buses from late 20th Century were still being used by LANTA.

“I feel like streetcars are more feasible, it would cost a lot of money, but it would make for someone that knows where they’ll specifically have to get to and where they’ll get dropped off, rather than stopping at a specific place when using a bus,” Mukatash said.

Streetcars have shown to effectively promote urban development and population shifts for the communities where they sprawl from. This could help concentrate people into various sectors reducing traffic, commute times and facilitation to get to certain places in the future. Not only that, but the streetcar has also positively impacted various communities across the country with economic booms accredited to their usage of streetcars.

According to ECONorthwest, their data suggests that Portland, Oregon’s streetcar system helped to bring in almost $5 billion into the economy since 1998. The data cites an increase in market value in the community as well as development to reep most of the benefits for Portland. Kansas City, Missouri also notes a $2 Billion uprising in their local economy since their streetcar was approved by voters in 2012.

Not too far from the Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia’s transit system, SEPTA, still boasts of providing the most extensive trolley system in the country. In the City of Brotherly Love, SEPTA has conducted various studies about the positive impact of mass-transit on property value and economic progress. The city soon plans to invest an additional $1.1 billion in order to update the current trolley system which stands today.

Although other areas across the country are making strong compromises to reform public transit systems by implementing streetcars, such as trolleys and light rail, the question remains whether the Lehigh Valley will eventually demand these sorts of modernizations to our current system.

Although projects like these could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, the impact which a streetcar system could have for us would be startling. Ideally, a system that could connect several points of interest within the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton corridor would likely impact us in various ways. Projects of these proportions have been shown to boost local economies by attracting individuals and corporations to invest in places where they value modernization and strong investments by local and state governments.

A system as such that can provide a fast connection to popular attractions such as colleges, sport venues, downtown areas, shopping centers, and entertainment centers would surely provide the ability to strengthen our economy and property value over the years.

While some will tout this idea as something unnecessary or out of proportions with our current needs, it’s important to refer the naysayers in the community to the past when the Lehigh Valley Transportation Company still administered these sorts of services for most of the Lehigh Valley. At some point, places like Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton boasted of an efficient system that provided these sorts of innovative services to the local economy, and as people look at ways to ditch their cars in exchange for something new, there shouldn’t be any sort of denial that local officials should look at improving our public transportation with streetcar and light rail services.

Certain organizations have pressured local officials to implement rail transit in order to connect the Lehigh Valley with major cities such as New York City and Philadelphia. While the ideas only seemed to be skimmed by local authorities, Amtrak seemed persuaded to launch a one time passenger train from New York, to the Lehigh Valley, touting a future of endless possibilities.

Many believed that the trolleys which once ran through the streets of towns like Allentown and Bethlehem would never see the light of day in our community, it remains clear that this may not be the case. Whether we want to admit, the Lehigh Valley is rapidly changing day-by-day as we come a larger and advanced population.

While the commodity of conforming to the use of vehicles for morning commutes and afternoon outings seems like a less overwhelming obstacle to overcome, a reform to public transit will eventually be needed, and we should not be addressing the issue while in the midst of a commuting crisis.

Our LANTA bus system addresses some resolutions, yet it does not address the future problems we will be encountering in the larger scheme of things.

In order to fix the issues which we currently encounter, we need dive into the past for solutions. While the Lehigh Valley Transit Company was eventually weakened to its failure, it’s important to realize the impact which the service had for the people of the Lehigh Valley at the time. With a well-proportioned plan with the approval of the community, a transit system as such could help to once again better the culture of commuting for the Lehigh Valley. With pressure from unsettling changes to our communities, the question remains whether we’ll act upon this urgency before we make things worse than what they already are.

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