On March 21, 2022, Pensacola Park neighbors Peggy Somsel and Rebecca Glasscock took the initiative to present a proposal to the LFUCG for a light rail line along Nicholasville Road. The text of the presentation follows:

Proposal for 3.7-mile l Light Rail Line

By Peggy Somsel and Rebecca Glasscock, Representing the Pensacola Park Neighborhood Association

We are proposing a 3.7-mile light rail transit line, with the north terminus at Cooper and Nicholasville Road and the south terminus at Man ‘O War and Nicholasville Road.

Our neighborhood was pleased that LFUCG invested in studying the Nicholasville Road corridor: Imagine Nicholasville Road. A plethora of citizen comments were submitted. These comments were evaluated and are now being considered. Our focus today is on traffic congestion, particularly on Nicholasville Road and more generally throughout Fayette County.

As reported on February 15, 2022, the National Transportation Research Nonprofit (TRIP) calculated the hidden costs of traffic and poorly maintained road in central Kentucky. The TRIP study estimated that, in Lexington:

  • The average motorist wastes 19 gallons of fossil fuel each year, while stalled in traffic.
  • Being struck in traffic is costly, amounting to an $809 expense per year per motorist.
  • The average motorist spends $306 per year maintaining their car, with some of the expense related to potholes and other road damage.
  • While a lot of effort is expended maintaining the streets and roads, 7% are considered in poor condition and 13% are rated as mediocre.
  • On average, 68 people per year die in traffic accidents. The cost of these crashes is spread throughout the community, with each driver bearing an extra cost of almost $400 per year.
  • Put together, drivers lose over $1,500 per year to roads that are rough, congested, and lacking in needed safety features.

On Nicholasville Road, 68% travel by private vehicle, 19% walk, 8% bike, and 4% travel via LexTran buses. Mirroring the results of the TRIP study, Imagine Nicholasville Road listed 15 concerns with the road, including congestion (especially at rush hour and during UK events), dangerous/unsafe stretches, and inefficient/poorly planned areas. Envisioned is a safe, efficient road that is accessible, uncongested, walkable, bikeable and greener.  

One suggestion to accomplish the goal of safety and efficiency is to improve the bus system.  More routes and a lane for buses only were two of the suggestions. With more routes, the buses would still be in traffic, impeding other vehicles with frequent stops. A dedicated lane would be preferable. While public opinion isn’t particularly favorable, at least at this time, to riding the bus, there is a notable exception. LexTran’s two loops around UK’s campus are very popular. Why? Because the buses come every few minutes, the bus shelters are covered, and the buses travel where people need to go.

Over the last few years, Lexington’s population has been increasing by around 1% per year. While that increase doesn’t seem like much, a consistent 1% rate of increase would double Lexington’s population in 70 years. Adjacent counties, often with lower housing prices, are also experiencing increasing populations, and many of these residents are commuting to Lexington for work. What a headache, trying to facilitate smooth transportation into, out of, and around Lexington. Perhaps we need to expand our vision for Nicholasville Road.

For context, let me share a bit of history. In the first half of the 20th century, our country had an efficient, well-used, and even beloved system of streetcars in cities and towns, large and small. In Lexington, first came the Omnibuses in 1874. These buses, that looked like big stage coaches, offered rides for five cents. Horse-drawn streetcars made their appearance in 1882 and then the electric streetcars came on line in 1890. The first Interurban ran between Lexington and Georgetown in 1902. By 1910, there were additional lines: to Nicholasville, Versailles, and Paris. Lexington’s peak year for streetcar ridership was 1926, when our streetcars carried 7 million passengers. Keep in mind that, in 1920, Lexington’s population was only 41,534. 

Cheap oil and the private automobile killed the streetcars. It is well documented that General Motors played a key role in destroying our country’s rail systems, promoting in Lexington and elsewhere the idea that buses could be (or would be) more economical than streetcars. From 1926 to 1932, Lexington’s streetcar ridership declined by 40%. On April 21, 1938, the last of Lexington’s streetcars pulled into the bone yard.

The buses didn’t live up to their promotion, but the private automobile was General Motors’ real end-game anyway. In 1924, 3.7 million automobiles were produced in the United States. During the 1950s, 58 million were produced. As of 2021, there are an estimated 289.5 million private vehicles on American streets and roads, clogging the roads and polluting the air.

The streetcar, generally called light rail today, needs to be put back on the table for consideration. Light rail is expensive, so we suggest starting with Nicholasville Road, which bears exceedingly high traffic volume during much of the day. A 3.7-mile line, with a dedicated lane on the east side of Nicholasville Road, would run between Cooper Drive and Man ‘O War. The rationale for the north terminus is that the LexTran loops that serve UK turn at the intersection of Cooper Drive and Nicholasville Road, allowing an easy connection between the bus and the rail. As for the south terminus, large areas (potentially) for Park and Rides are available near this intersection. Smaller Park and Ride areas might be arranged in front of Malibu Jack’s, the Zandale Center, and others.

Already 30 U.S. cities have reinvested in light rail, including Cincinnati, Atlanta, Charlotte (NC), Memphis, and Little Rock. Besides the visual appeal of light rail, there are economic benefits.

Studies indicate that for every $10 million of transit investment, business sales increase by $30 million dollars. Residential properties located within proximity of the light rail tend to become 42% more valuable, thus generating greater tax revenue. Light rail reduces individuals’ travel time due to less congestion, and yes, there’s a little walking involved, which tends to make people happier and healthier. Transportation is responsible for generating significant quantities of air pollutants, so an electrified light rail system would help our community reduce its pollution load, and the attending adverse health effects.

Over the past five years, 77% of transit funding ballot initiatives in the United States have demonstrated a high level of support. As gas prices fluctuate, but trend upward, light rail is likely to become even more desirable. Finally, light rail can be good for our mental health and well-being: people can relax, read, and socialize. As with the bus system, light rail would add an option for lower income individuals.  

At the end of WWII, the streetcar systems in both Europe and the United States were in desperate need of repair and upgrades. Europe invested in keeping their light rail alive. We lost that opportunity, but it has come again. Light rail technology is well-advanced and Lexington would be well-served to begin considering investment before our current transportation system buckles down under the stress of an increasing population. Development means taking what we have and making it better. We had light rail once and it was very successful. It’s time to consider it again.

Light Rail Transit definition, by Transportation Research Board

A metropolitan electric railway system characterized by its ability to operate single cars or short trains along exclusive rights of way at ground level, on aerial structures, in subways, or occasionally, in streets, and to board and discharge passengers at track or car-floor level.

Potential funding sources

Statement from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Predicable, reliable funding is the foundation for success for transportation in Kentucky, and the IIJA would help us continue to deliver quality transportation all across the Commonwealth.

From the Federal Transit Administration, federal programs that support public transportation (as of March 10, 2022):

Competitive Programs

  • Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE)
  • Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI)
  • Railroad Crossing Elimination Program

Federal Loan Programs

  • Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program
  • Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF)

Flexible Funding for Transit and Highway Improvement

  • Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program
  • Surface Transportation Block Grant (STBG)
  • National Highway Performance Program (NHPP)

Also, General Motors destroyed the streetcars. Maybe Toyota will help rebuild them.

Informal Survey of Pensacola Park Neighbors

Of twelve responses, ten indicated support for a light rail system. Comments included:

  • Would ride to avoid parking hassles. Need commuter parking to relieve congestion. Work with UK and hospitals, and city offices to offer incentives for their employees at the commuter parking spaces.
  • Not exactly sure what it is, but would potentially use it to get to and from work at UK.
  • Thinks its ridiculous. No one uses public transport. No one will stop using their cars. Lexington has many problems not being addressed.
  • Less pollution, lower carbon emissions, builds community, and less congestion. Would use for shopping and entertainment. Just having the system would make me want to use it. Let’s do it!
  • I might change my mind in the future, but I really do not think I would use a light rail service out of safety concerns.
  • If this can reduce congestion and mitigate the effects of vehicle pollution, I think it’s an option worth exploring. As a newcomer to Lexington, there are lots of benefits I can imagine, including reduce commuting times on weekdays as well as fewer parking issues and traffic hassles on game days.
  • I already take the bus to work. All for public transportation option that more of my neighbors will use.

Great Transit Systems in the U.S.

Ten cities with populations above 50,000 but less than one million have transit ridership* in excess of 50 per year. All these cities share a commonality with Lexington: they support a large university.

#1.      Ames, Iowa: 101.1

#2.      Champaign-Urbana, IL: 79.0

#3.      Ithaca, NY: 78.9

#4.      Honolulu, HI: 78.0 (the outlier)

#5.      State College, PA: 73.3

#6.      San Marcos, TX: 57.3

#7.      Athens, GA: 56.4

#8.      Blacksburg, VA: 55.3

#9.      Davis, CA: 51.4

#10.    Iowa City, IA: 50.6

The larger cities with high ridership are:

New York, NY: 233.3

San Francisco, CA: 136.1

Boston, MA: 89.3

Washington, DC: 88.6

Seattle, WA: 71.5

Chicago, IL: 63.7

Philadelphia, PA: 60.1

Portland, OR: 58.8

* Ridership = Unlinked trips per capita

2019 American Public Transportation Association Report

  • In 1997: 52 rail systems. In 2017, 88. Since 1997, ridership has increased over 60%.
  • Since 1997, U.S. population has increased 19% while public transit ridership has increased 21%.
  • When the report was prepared, 47% of public transit trips were by bus and 48% were by rail.
  • Over the past 30 years, light rail has become 33% more efficient in terms of kilowatt hours per vehicle mile.
  • Public transit has become more accessible. In 1993, 41% were handicap accessible. As of 2018, 89% were.
  • An estimated 4.1 billion gallons of gas per year saved by using public transportation.
  • Four dollars in economic returns are generated for every $1 invested in public transit.
  • Each $1 billion investment in public transit supports 50,000 jobs and $642 million in tax revenue.

Imagine Nicholasville Road

Light rail is consistent with the benefits outlined in the Imagine Nicholasville Road, including landscaping to add aesthetics, reduce heat island effects, minimize upkeep, calm traffic, and provide a traffic/pedestrian buffer; pedestrian scale lighting; separated bike paths; and calming traffic by narrowing the lanes and other means.