OnTrack’s Shadow

Sometimes it feels like this City can’t get past OnTrack. When Centro is working to run better bus service, people just say ‘bring back OnTrack.’ When I81 is making Syracuse totally rethink what kind of city it wants to be and what that means for public transportation, people just say ‘bring back OnTrack.’ That rail service was a great experiment, but Syracuse needs to move on if public transportation is ever going to do what it needs to do in this town.
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Syracuse needs better public transportation between the University, Downtown, and the Mall. That’s common sense, and it’s one of the big recommendations from the Syracuse Transit System Analysis. After weighing all the options, the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council drew up a plan to serve that corridor with a new high-frequency bus line.

OnTrack used to do that same job, but a bus could do it better for the simple reason that a bus could do it faster. OnTrack ran on rails that zigged and zagged through the City, tracing a 4.5-mile squiggle from the University to the Mall. Trains took 20 minutes to make that trip. That’s no faster than what Centro’s buses already do running on 3.75 miles of city streets, and SMTC’s plan includes a few tricks that will make those buses go even faster.

Despite that simple fact, people still ask why Syracuse should settle for a fast bus when it could have a slow train instead. That mindset—trains or nothing—deprives bus service of its natural political allies, and it keeps Centro from making even incremental changes to improve the state of public transportation in Syracuse.

At the same time, OnTrack is a poor model if you’re trying to imagine what a truly transformational transit system would look like. It was a half-hearted budget-minded proposal that barely even tried to improve the lives of people who actually rely on public transportation.

Train tracks criss cross Syracuse and its suburbs. The rail lines left over from the City’s pre-car period still run through the walkable villages and neighborhoods where public transit works best, and they extend to major regional population centers like Oswego, Auburn, and Cortland. A true regional rail service could connect all those places, making it possible to get around the entire metropolitan area quickly and conveniently without ever having to step foot in a car.

Existing rail infrastructure

And that’s not the only way to liberate people from automotive dependency. Syracuse has ceded its streets entirely to cars. Take just a fraction of that space back, and the City could have a true rapid transit network with buses running in dedicated transitways through villages and neighborhoods, and in separated lanes on the highways that connect those population centers.

Despite these possibilities, too many ideas about what’s possible in this town start and end with OnTrack—a solitary, short, single-tracked rail line that served too few destinations too slowly and too infrequently. If Syracuse ever builds the political will to spend the money necessary to build a transformational public transportation system, we’ll need to think bigger than that.

OnTrack was a bold experiment. The City needed better public transportation, and instead of tinkering with bus routes Syracuse went big and built an El. As a passenger train service OnTrack failed, but as an experiment it succeeded in showing the City what wouldn’t work and in suggesting new possibilities that could work. That should be OnTrack’s legacy—a visionary investment in public transportation that points the way towards a better future Syracuse.