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Moving On After Rain Forest

Robert F. Sayre

Iowa City Press-Citizen

January 5, 2006

Coralville officials should be commended for rejecting the rain forest. It was a bad project that was going nowhere
[Note: This material is copyright by the Press-Citizen, and is reproduced here as a matter of "fair use" for non-commercial, educational purposes only. Any other use may require the prior approval of the Iowa City Press-Citizen.]

With the rain forest out of the local picture (hopefully), it is time to move on to better ideas. One of the best ones that has been announced recently is the appropriation of $136,000 for a feasibility study of a light rail to connect Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and the Amana Colonies.

According to Iowa railroad historian Frank Donovan, the old CRANDIC carried more than 500,000 passengers a year during World War II. With light, speedy, electric cars that could go 80 m.p.h., it was very popular with students, shoppers, and commuters, not to mention football and basketball fans. It also occupied such a place in people's hearts that six cars were necessary to carry all the passengers on the ceremonial final trip in 1953. At the last stop in Iowa City a band played "Auld Lang Syne."

But sentimental passengers were not numerous enough to make the old CRANDIC pay. By 1952 ridership was barely over 188,000. The reason for the drop, of course, was the end of wartime gas rationing.

People were no longer restricted to just a few gallons a week. Highways improved. Cars became more reliable, and the golden age of interurbans like CRANDIC seemed past, although there is also evidence that General Motors secretly acted to hasten the end.

Now we face the impending end of the golden age of the automobile. Charles T. Maxwell, whom Barron's called the "dean of energy analysts," has predicted that "within 10 years, gasoline could sell for the equivalent of $8 a gallon in 2005 dollars." He wrote that in March 2005, months before the summer shortages that drove the price to $3 a gallon. By 2015 better fuel economies in smaller cars could relieve some of the pain of $8 a gallon gasoline, but not all. There also is the promise of alternative fuels, although it is a distant one.

So think of such high prices as being like rationing. At $8 a gallon, a 60 mile round trip to Cedar Rapids would cost $32. People in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and the Amanas, like people all over the U.S., are going to be forced to seek alternative transportation. Light rail, which has already caught on in some larger cities, may catch on here. There is existing right-of-way between these three popular destinations -- right-of-way that could be improved and expanded. The routes also pass near other destinations like University Hospitals and the Eastern Iowa Airport. Even the erstwhile site of the Iowa Environmental Project is not far from the old CRANDIC line. Whatever is built there -- museums, water parks, more convention and tourist sites -- would be as easily reachable by fast light rail as by car.

The Coralville officials should be commended for rejecting the rain forest. It was a bad project that was going nowhere (and probably will go nowhere, despite reports of interest in it in other cities). Triangular light rail service between Iowa City-Coralville, Cedar Rapids, and the Amanas -- a way of moving people rapidly between fast-growing cities and Iowa's leading tourist attraction -- is a good idea that fully deserves careful study.