The city I hail from (Spokane) is considering a light rail. What do the Cyburbanites think: Light rail- sustainable public transit or not? Also, what's the history of how the area around these stations have developed?
Whether it is sustainable or not really depends on if the ridership demand is there. I'm not familiar with that region, but the rail has to go somewhere people want to go (obviously).
Here in Philly, none of our rail recovers its cost, so every rider is subsidized by the state in one way or another. I can only imagine that this would be the case for you also, as we have a very hihg ridership on our rail lines.
And to be perfectly honest with you, the neighborhoods around the stations are run-down ghettos. They were once thriving neighborhoods when the lines were first inroduced in the early 1900s, but they've since run down.
It seems odd to me that we always end up talking about "light rail" as the solution to transit problems. People tend to forget about the assets already in place in their quest for the perfect solution.
Madison, Wisconsin is a good example. It studied, and thankfully dropped the idea of light rail. There are already rail lines running east-to-west through the community and the downtown, which is an isthmus. (It is hard to imagine a better way to encourge denisty than to locate the downtown between two water bodies.) There are transit technologies developed using existing tracks, basically self-propelled train cars, that are much cheaper than acquiring land and constructing new track.
You can spend a lot of money on new transit options. The problem with transit is America is that we do not like buses, and we prefer the independence and privacy of our own cars. Buses especially have an image problem, which is why people think light rail, monorails, and other techniques are a solution. No. Unless people buy into the idea of transit (i.e.; Toronto, Portland, and a few others), it won't matter what option you give them, they wil not use it.
Another major purpose of light rail is channeling development. A freeway disperses development spreading it out from the exits in all directions. Transit concentrates development and builds community. If Spokane is trying to be more dense and lively like Portaland it will need to choose an LRT line where it wants this growth to occur. While self propelled rail vehicles along existing rights of way may be cheaper and less controversial, if they don't go from where people live and play to work with busy stations inbetween it may be better to look at other routes. A lightrail along a dense street with a built in right of may allow people to move quickly where pedestrians want to go. But if there is no political will to build a right of way then it won't happen. Factors such as amount of gridlock, transit share of transportation, building patterns (No light rail to walmart), and the city's interest in pursuing transit friendly planning will have an impact on the success of the system. Light rail is not the only system for moderate sized american cities, but many Spokane residents may have seen and used it in Portland. Yes transit will have to be subsidized. We also subsidize auto, air and sea travel, so subsidizing transit should be expected.