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POTTSTOWN — One way to look at how we do transportation wrong in this country is a simple measurement of space.

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Peter Newman, a professor of sustainability at Australia's Curtin University, did it with one slide.

The slide notes that 240 people commute to work in 177 cars, three buses, or in one tram.

Fewer vehicles equals fewer traffic jams.

Peter Newman

Curtin University Professor of Sustainability, Peter Newman, address the crowd in Pottstown Thursday.

Simple, right?

Newman thinks so.

He was at the Pottstown campus of the Montgomery County Community College Thursday at the invitation of state Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist., who is trying to make good on a campaign promise to search for alternatives to traffic headaches on Route 422.

His research led him to Newman. When Ciresi contacted Newman, he found out Newman was coming to speak at the University of Pennsylvania, where he once taught. He agreed to speak in Pottstown while he is here.

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For years, we've believed the solution to increasing traffic on our roadways is a return to commuter rail or light rail.

Newman, who got involved in the issue when he fought to save the train in his hometown of Fremantle, near Perth on the southwest coast of Australia, shared that believe and the effort he joined saved the train.

So Newman spent decades advocating for light rail, commuter rail and other similar transportation alternatives to the automobile because of the efficiency, and the other advantages it brings.

And it does bring advantages.

It takes cars off the road, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And when it's electric, it reduces greenhouse gases even more. Generate that electricity with solar power and the environmental and quality of life advantages increase.

Rail also tends to increase the value or nearby real estate, particularly when "transit-oriented-design" ensures redevelopment near rail stations is geared specifically to benefit from the access rail provides.

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Newman said the new Brightline transit system in Miami is so successful, entrepreneur Richard Branson bought it and wants to build more as a way to increase real estate values.

In fact, rail projects around the world have done just that, said Newman.

One here in the U.S., the "Brightline" in Miami, is so successful after one year that it is making a profit and has been purchased outright by entrepreneur Richard Branson of Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic airways fame.

Newman said Branson and other entrepreneurs recognize the effect efficient transit has on nearby real estate values.

"Good public transit services unlocks the value of the land," Newman explained.

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A century ago, tramway companies often established lines as part of a real estate development effort.

This is nothing new, said Newman. In the previous century, tramway companies built their lines to connect real estate development to cities.

In Pottstown, for example, tramways were built to bring people to the region's various amusement parks in Sanatoga and Ringing Rocks parks.

Asian nations are on onboard with light rail projects, said Newman, noting that 82 Chinese cities are building metros and high speed rail between cities. The system in Shanghai carries eight million passengers per day. 

Further, 51 Indian cities are building metros at any city over 1 million people and even cities in the Middle East, fossil fuel capital of the world, are building rail.

But, as those who have lived in this region for several years know all to well, getting passenger rail built, or returned, is a heavy lift.

Joe Ciresi

State Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-146th Dist., said he commuted on Route 422 to the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia for years and knows there has to be a better way.

For nearly a decade, hopeful rail riders watched with ever-sinking expectations as the projected price tag on the proposed Schuylkill Valley Metro between Reading and Norristown rose out of reach.

"There is not a person here who disagrees that putting a train back on those tracks would be a great solution," Ciresi said, pointing toward one of the two sets of freight rail tracks that run through Pottstown and were once the provenance of the competing Reading and Pennsylvania railroads.

"But we can't wait any longer," he said. 

Cost is a common obstacle, said Newman. He's seen it in Australia as well.

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Trackless Trams provide many of the advantages of light rail, with a much lower cost, argues Peter Newman.

The cost of a new rail line in Sydney is $17-to-$22 million per kilometer "and it's not done yet," Newman said.

Trackless trams, on the other hand, can be had for about $3 million for a station and three-car tram, meaning a 10-mile line would be only $30 million as compared to $170 to $220 million.

Also, trackless trams ride on existing roads, so no new track is necessary; nor is the ever-elusive permission of the Norfolk-Southern freight line, which now owns the rails that once carried passengers from Pottstown to Philadelphia.

One tram car is half the weight of a bus and so would do no more damage to the streets then the SEPTA buses which ply our roadways currently, he said.

Inside Tram

Peter Newman, seen at riding riding a trackless tram in China, said the ride is so smooth, a child could run the length of the car without losing his balance.

Newman said unlike buses, the trackless tram construction provides a smooth ride. While it uses GPS and optical line reading to stay on it's route, unlike rail it can also be diverted to get around an accident or construction, he said.

The systems can be implemented very quickly and, a particular advantage, can be done simply with local government partnering with entrepreneurs, avoiding the bureaucracy of state and federal agencies.

What is most needed, said Newman, is public support. 

He said the rail revolution began in Portland, Ore., when the public rose up against a proposed freeway and insisted they would rather have rail.

Tram crowd

About 75 people turned out Thursday at the Pottstown campus of Montgomery County Community College to hear Peter Newman's presentation on "trackless trams."

"This won't work unless you guys are behind it," Newman said.

Public support can be built with the prospect of increased employment, he said. The bids can be crafted in such a way that the systems are built locally, creating local jobs, he said.

"We used to know how to build things here in Pottstown," one member of the audience of roughly 75 said wryly during the question-and-answer period.

Some kind of solution is needed for existing businesses as well said  Cassandra Morabito, director of human resources for the Topos Mondial Corp., which designs, engineers and manufactures bakery equipment of all types in Pottstown.

"We need workers," Morabito said after the presentation. "We have trained workers who can't get to Pottstown. We need skilled tradespeople, electricians, welders, mechanics."

Ciresi said he is looking for solutions.

"It may be this, it may be something else. If 1,000 people use this, that's 1,000 cars off Route 422. I would hope for 5,000. Why don't we let this region be the place where it gets tested?" he said.

Pottstown Borough Council President Dan Weand, who attended the talk with fellow Councilwoman Trenita Lindsay, said the two felt sure they could convince the rest of council to support making Pottstown the place where the trackless tram is test driven.

"The main thing to do is give it a try and take it step by step," Newman said.

This article first appeared as a post in The Digital Notebook blog.

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