Anniversary. According to the dictionary, “The annually recurring date of a past event, especially one of historical, national, or personal importance.” Milestones along the timeline of longevity. This year, in the Lehigh Valley, a number of them are being celebrated:
- Allentown – 250th
- Lehigh County – 200th
- Northampton County Courthouse – 150th
- Penn State Lehigh Valley – 100th
- Yocco’s – 90th
- LANta – 40th
- Celtic Festival – 25th
Pardon us if we’ve missed your special date: this list is not meant to be exhaustive but a random selection of milestones of note locally.
LANta’s 40th is marking the date that the Authority itself was ‘born.’ In March, 1972, following an 18 month long study to help advise the local County elected officials about what was to be done to maintain public transportation services, Lehigh and Northampton County Commissioners separately approved the establishment of a bi-county Authority to operate and manage the transit system.
The private company, Lehigh Valley Transit, after a valiant struggle to maintain the system on a profitable basis, figuratively threw in the towel in 1971 by announcing major service cuts and fare increases that basically meant the end of transit services. The then Joint Planning Commission took up the charge to analyze with the help of an object consultant, how transit services could be continued and under what form would they best be managed?
The answer was the Lehigh and Northampton Transportation Authority or, LANTA, the second bi-county entity the counties created to manage a transportation service. The other was the Lehigh Northampton Airport Authority.
The Federal Government in the late 60’s during the Nixon Administration, set the foundation for encouraging local communities to maintain transit systems that were failing all over the nation. The US government, under the Urban Mass Transit Administration, clumsily called UMTA, would provide grants to cover 80% of the cost of capital equipment and up to 50% of the loss due to shortfalls from the farebox for operating expenses.
Five representatives from each County were appointed to LANTA’s first Board of Directors. While there was some political push to have one County representative serve as Chairman exclusively, the level-headed, newly appointed Board, solved the deadlock with a flip of a coin: the first Chair would be chosen from among the Northampton County representatives and Victor Anckaitis was unanimously voted to be given that honor. Mr. Anckaitis knew a thing or two about transportation as he had served as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Transportation in Harrisburg.
The first years were the most active and stressful for the new Board. The fleet was aging and had to be replaced all at once. Service had been slashed and fares were at the edge of being intolerable for the passengers so both these were remedied with expansion of hours and reductions in price per trip. The transit employees, naturally anxious about their future, were assured that things were going to be stable and reasonably well-funded given the federal and later the State involvement with support. Marketing programs were set in place to attract the passenger base back to public transit.
By the mid 1980’s, ridership had nearly doubled and reached a peak of 5 million in 1986.
Of course, public transit has a much longer history. The first ‘omnibuses or group travel conveyance was horse-drawn and operated for the public in France in 1662. Its success was short-lived however as streets were poor and getting the general public to pay to ride was difficult when walking was free. It wasn’t until the 1800’s and the industrial revolution that public transit – the concept of sharing rides to commute to and from factories and offices – took hold. By the late 1800’s, rails were imbedded in streets and trolleys and light rail services attracted customers in huge numbers for the low-cost convenience and safety shared short ride transit could provide. When the first subway was opened in Manhattan in 1904, on the very first day, the passenger cars were packed like sardines and not much changed forever after that as more and more underground lines were added throughout New York and cities across the US. Of course the London Underground and the Paris Metropolitan came along at the same time to help resolve traffic issues on surface streets and to expand the availability of land within these cities.
Locally, the Lehigh Valley community grew from the 1880’s on around trolley lines. The renowned Colonel Harry C. Trexler owned the local power generation company and, clever man that he was (he was sort of the local Bill Gates: he knew how to use technology to make a buck!) installed rails and trolley lines throughout the community. Lehigh Valley Transit was Trexler’s transit operation and LVT bought its energy from Trexler’s power company. Trexler was also a land developer, and would buy a patch of land, bisect it with a trolley line and build homes that were a short trolley ride away from the city employment center. All the jobs were downtown and all the trolley tracks headed that way.
Everyone could afford the low-cost trolley fares. And transit jobs were prized and handed down from generation to generation. The profession was so valuable that during World War II, trolley operators were exempt from armed services because their jobs were considered vital to the local economy. A man in a trolley uniform was as highly respected as a police or fireman. Eventually, it took the rubber-tired bus services and Ralph Kramden to reduce the role of the transit operator to that of a buffoon. That of course, was never true and today as in the past, the LANtaBus operator is a skilled, highly trained professional with a heavy responsibility for safety and reliability of service. Still, the “Oh Ralph” stigma lingers on.
While Europe nationalized transit services when the private companies failed and discouraged the use of the private, single-occupancy automobile in urban areas after World War II, the US did just the opposite. With the Eisenhower Administration’s National Highway Act, roads and highways were built to allow the automobile to move freely and efficiently throughout communities and indeed, across the entire nation. Conceived initially as a National Security effort, the Highway Act evolved into providing the nation’s cities with the capacity to build suburbs for both residential and commercial activity. The world we view now, with densely populated urban cores surrounded by low-density ‘bedroom communities’ and industrial parks, is a direct result of the national government’s providing communities with 90 cents for every dollar invested in highway and road construction over a 50 year period.
Many viewed this change as progress. As modern living providing people with the ability to live wherever they wanted – wherever they could afford – and easily commute to work or school. Others see this development as interrupting the natural evolution of cities and creating an unsustainable model for livable communities.
In a world of inexpensive energy, the dependence on the single-occupancy auto works fairly well. Improved pollution controls and increased efficiencies of engines make it even better. However, when the cost of a gallon of gas goes to $4.00, people start to yearn for that low-cost, convenient and reliable public transit service as an alternative.
Trouble is, while the federal government did provide some lifeline support of public transit service, the real focus was on highways and making the auto king. The way communities were developed, with housing and commercial parks surrounding the urban centers, was counter-productive to the institution of efficient, direct transit routes. And the developments themselves ignored the public transit factor. Cul-de-sacs, narrow roads, lack of sidewalks or paths for pedestrians basically ‘planned out’ public transit as a reasonable option.
So as LANTA celebrates 40 years of maintaining and improving public transit for the Lehigh Valley, the situation is not all that favorable for significant growth. Over the past couple of years, through the development of the Moving LANTA Forward planning documents, some good tools have been developed to advice municipalities how to adopt design elements and constrain development to better accommodate public transit. But frankly, it is very doubtful, given that the Valley is basically managed by 62 separate municipalities, that a uniform approach will be adopted. And even if there is widespread adoption of these basic elements, there is a real question as to whether or not they will be put into practice. For all the rules adopted, there are always exceptions.
To paraphrase Dickens, “this is the best of times and the worst of times.” The information age has led to an explosion of ways we can communicate and work without ever having to leave our houses. The internet – the new “superhighway” has the potential to change our communities just as profoundly as the National Highway Act. And yet, the world continues to operate in a fashion that has not adopted this concept of change and most are forced to continue to commute from home to office or plant. And of course many things require a physical presence: hospitals, prisons, factories, dental offices. Police cannot monitor neighborhoods from their homes or even from the police station. Construction workers have to travel to sites.
The answer ultimately seems to be finding an inexpensive alternative fuel that is as efficient as gasoline or diesel that is pollution free and ideally renewable. We wonder if that is going to be in place when LANta celebrates its 50th anniversary – or even its 100th. Only time will tell.