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And it's hard to find a city in the United States that isn't planning, proposing, studying or actually building a light rail system. From Dallas to Seattle to Washington, D.C., all see light rail as part of their future.

NPR's JJ Sutherland decided to visit the most ambitious project in the nation in Denver.

JJ SUTHERLAND: Walking from the river to Union Station in downtown Denver with Chris Frampton is a walk through a cityscape that doesnt exist yet. Right now, huge empty areas barren of anything are fenced off. There are construction crews digging a huge hole in the ground in preparation for the final stages of a transportation system that is already taking shape.

Mr. CHRIS FRAMPTON (Partner, East West Partners): The effect has been pretty amazing.

(Soundbite of train)

Mr. FRAMPTON: You can hear this train going by.

SUTHERLAND: Frampton's company, East West Partners, either owns or has the rights to buy most of the land around here. And even in the midst of a real estate collapse, he's bullish about it. And the reason why is simple: a multibillion dollar 12-year program to completely reshape transportation in Denver, much of it through building light rail. The program is called Fast Tracks and its epicenter is right here in downtown at Union Station.

Mr. FRAMPTON: Right here next to us is going to be the new headquarters of DaVita, which is a company that's moving here from El Segundo, California. And they picked this site, 100 percent, because it's next to the light rail.

SUTHERLAND: He points to another building, Gates Rubber Company. Half of their employees take the light rail to work already. He points to another empty area. It feels like there ought to be a hotel, he says.

Mr. FRAMPTON: So those drivers are a big deal for all of the land and trains make all of that possible.

SUTHERLAND: It's not just in Denver. In Salt Lake City, in Phoenix, in San Diego, in cities large and small, light rail is taking off. Light rail more like streetcars than anything else. One, maybe two cars long, they move almost silently on steel rails, usually powered by overhead lines. Their narrow footprint makes it easy to build them in dense urban areas, on already crowded streets.

Robert Puentes is a transportation expert at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. ROBERT PUENTES (Senior Fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program; Brookings Institution): There are very few major metropolitan areas in the country that aren't considering the installation of some kind of rail system.

SUTHERLAND: He stresses that the car is still king, but politicians, businessmen and developers like Chris Frampton, are looking for other ways of guiding development and think light rail is the answer.

Mr. FRAMPTON: I do. Light rail stops create nodes and create opportunities for denser development. So you don't end up using up roads and using up sewers, and building new police stations and building new water lines, so forth and so on and so on.

Mr. TOM CLARK (Executive Vice President, Denver Economic Development Corporation): When we started to talk about mass transit, that sounded a little bit too close to socialism for most of us.

SUTHERLAND: Standing at a downtown light rail station is Tom Clark. He's with the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, a business group. He says convincing a car culture to endorse light rail took some doing but eventually the economics just made sense.

Mr. CLARK: We had a worker housing problem. And the roads were getting congested enough that workers from the north side could no longer commute by car to the south side. They needed an alternative.

SUTHERLAND: With the economic downturn, there have been fewer tax dollars than hoped for, and in a new era of cutbacks, it's not clear if any more federal money is coming either. But even so, everyone else with the same problems that Denver has wants to know how they did it - how they convinced a car culture to turn to mass transit.

(Soundbite of banging)

SUTHERLAND: In Washington, D.C., they're installing light rail in areas that have no rail service at the moment in historically black neighborhoods.

Tiffany Harding(ph) stands on H Street. H Street was once one of the city's busiest commercial areas but it's never quite recovered from the riots of 1968. Now, the city is hoping light rail can help change that. It's been ripped up for months as crews install tracks.

Harding, a resident and a commuter, hopes that light rail will change this neighborhood and city.

Ms. TIFFANY HARDING: Well, you'd get more people coming, and you'd get better businesses. Let's put it this way, it'd be easier for everyone to move around.

Unidentified Announcer: This is the C line to Union Station.

SUTHERLAND: What you hear civic leaders talk about across the nation is the need for cities to become magnets for talent, to become true world-class cities. And many of them see light rail as part of that transformation.

Brookings, Robert Puentes, says American cities now have to compete globally.

Mr. PUENTES: They're going to have to attract young, qualified workers, and it's going to take a robust, dynamic transportation system to move these folks around. We're seeing this in case after case.

SUTHERLAND: There are 35 light rail systems operating in the United States today. At least 13 Metro areas are currently building others. Many more are being planned.

Unidentified Announcer: Stand clear. The doors are closing.

JJ Sutherland, NPR News.

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