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Trolley Could Save Rain-Forest Folly


Daily Iowan

June 17, 2004

The $50 million rider on the 2003 Energy Policy Act for the indoor rain-forest project in Coralville was an embarrassing way to bring national attention to our Eastern Iowa community. Aside from "what the f-?", the resounding question people asked was what a domed rain forest had to do with energy.

Not much, aside from the massive amounts it will require to keep heated during an Iowa winter and illuminate UV-hungry trees. However, the Cedar Rapids City Council voted in late March to apply for $12 million in federal grant money to run a trolley between Coralville, the Amana Colonies, and Cedar Rapids. While that proposal would fall short of serving Eastern Iowa commuters' needs, the idea should be explored. If executed correctly, the rain-forest pork project could help produce an extremely useful (and likely more permanent) result that could help save fuel and ease interstate traffic.

The Cedar Rapids proposal was fiscally prudent, using existing rails on which the trolley would run, costing approximately $15 million. However, those tracks are safe only up to 40 mph. They pass near downtown Iowa City (approximately two blocks away from the site of the new Iowa City Transit Building). The same tracks also come within yards of the site of the rain-forest project. Iowa City residents could catch a Kernels game and enjoy a few beers without having to drive home, while a Cedar Rapids resident could enjoy an evening in a downtown that has a pulse.

While the infrastructure does exist, replacing the existing tracks with ones safe for higher speeds would cost at least $1 million per mile, according to Iowa City Transit manager Ron Logsden. This would bring the cost of such a project to a range of about $40 million to $50 million, far more than the Cedar Rapids proposal. And interest in a rail system in Eastern Iowa must be practical. Tourism alone would not sustain such a project. It must first serve the needs of Eastern Iowans in order to sustain itself for tourism.

Besides cost, getting people to accept a rail-transit system as an alternative to driving is the next biggest obstacle. People prefer taking their own vehicles to their destinations because they aren't confined to a schedule or restricted to where the transit system stops. However, parking is becoming scarce and expensive, and I-80 and Highway 6 are becoming congested with clockwork predictability. More than 45,000 cars use the local I-80 stretch daily, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation. Rail travel won't be affected by traffic. Stations downtown, on campus, and by the UIHC wouldn't be any more of a walk than to the parking facility. In fact, they would probably be closer.

With the fund-raising capacity and connections to lawmakers that the rain-forest project board has demonstrated, another $25 million or so (on top of proposed local government and federal efforts) toward such a project shouldn't prove to be too difficult. Given a price tag of more than $215 million for the rain forest, the cost of a rail system looks more than reasonable. It would shuttle visitors from the airport in Cedar Rapids to the rain forest while garnering support for the rain forest from what has been a skeptical and divided community.

A rail system is also actually justifiable in an energy bill, because it would help to save fuel and will still be running long after the rain forest begins siphoning off state and federal money to sustain itself (you wouldn't want this expensive educational facility to close just years after it was built).