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April 2009

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Streetcar proponents seek public support, funding to launch modern-day systems

By Ronnie Garrett

Back in the days of horse-drawn carriages, another mode of transportation rose as king: the streetcar. Then the automobile took its sovereignty away, as roads and freeways became the preferred means of moving into and around urban centers. But the staple of early 20th century transportation is experiencing a comeback as communities across the United States go “back to the future.”

The primary driver: Cities themselves are making a comeback, as young professionals and baby boomers alike move closer to where the action is.

“The ‘Leave it to Beaver’ family ideal where you live in a ranch-type home with a picket fence on a couple of acres is changing,” says Jim Graebner, a streetcar consultant who chairs the American Public Transportation Association’s Streetcar and Heritage Trolley Subcommittee.

As people move back to downtown areas, streetcars serve as an excellent pick-up and distribution system, Graebner adds. That’s because streetcars move at slow speeds to easily shuttle people through congested downtown areas. They also make attractions and downtown businesses more accessible and, as a result, help prompt economic development.

Today, cities throughout the country — from Los Angeles, to Tucson, Ariz., to Omaha, Neb., to Indianapolis — are working to revive, promote and obtain funding for streetcar systems in hopes of capitalizing on downtown revitalization efforts. But whether streetcars regain a foothold is far more complex than simply building the systems and expecting people and economic development to come. Like any transit project, streetcar systems require a fair amount of funding — and public support to increase cities’ chances of obtaining said funding. Once they’re in place, streetcars can hold the key to a downtown area’s success, proponents say.

“We’re taking that great, old idea and making it new again in a modern, environmentally friendly way,” says Los Angeles Councilmember José Huizar, who’s helping non-profit organization Bringing Back Broadway promote a proposed streetcar system through L.A.’s Broadway Theater District. “We are laying plans that will affect the success of downtown for generations.”

Charging ahead

Bringing Back Broadway is proposing a 3.5-mile streetcar system that would run along Broadway and link to other downtown destinations, such as L.A. LIVE and the city’s convention center on one end, and the L.A. Music Center and financial district on the other. The line is projected to open by 2014.

Huizar predicts the system will aid revitalization efforts already under way in the district, which features 12 theatres in eight blocks. The locale once was one of the busiest retail corridors in the country, but commercial occupancy has declined over time.

Tucson also is jumping on the streetcar bandwagon. Slated to open by 2011, the city’s proposed $140 million to $150 million, four-mile line would run from the University of Arizona through downtown to a private development on the west side. Nineteen stops will connect the public to activity centers in the city’s central core, including the Downtown Redevelopment Area, 4th Avenue and Main Gate business districts, university and Arizona Health Services. With six streetcars running simultaneously, passengers won’t have to wait more than 10 minutes for a ride, says Fran LaSala, assistant to the Tucson city manager.

Meanwhile, other cities are working to get their proposed streetcar systems off the drawing board.

The Downtown Indianapolis Streetcar Corp. recently launched an in-depth study of potential routes for a one- to 1.5-mile system that would feature four to five cars operating past key downtown attractions throughout the day, says President Steve DeVoe.

Omaha Streetcar officials share a similar dream for their community of 432,000. The grassroots organization is striving to educate the public and advocate for an effective transit system that includes streetcars as well as an integrated bus system.

The 3.5-mile line would serve many areas of the community from North Omaha to South Omaha, Bellevue, West Omaha to Council Bluffs, Creighton University and a new baseball stadium. A financial feasibility study is under way and scheduled to be complete by May.

“We feel streetcars are well suited to the stop-and-start traffic of the city,” says Omaha Streetcar President Gerald Kopiasz.

Building critical mass

But, as always, generating public support for a multi-million-dollar project is no easy ride. Streetcars haven’t operated in downtown Omaha for 50 years and when Omaha Streetcar first proposed resurrecting the line, some citizens were less than enthusiastic, Kopiasz recalls.

“The public response was, ‘Heck no, we’ve gone down that route before and we don’t need streetcars,’” he says.

Proponents in other cities have met similar hesitation from area residents and community leaders. That’s why educating people about the systems’ potential and benefits is necessary to rally support for streetcar projects, which often are funded by public dollars.

Proponents most often tout streetcar systems’ ability to attract economic development. Communities need only look as far as Portland, Ore., where a $100 million streetcar line spurred an estimated $2.3 billion in development, increased property values and raised business tax revenue, L.A.’s Huizar points out. The line — which opened in 2001 in the city’s Pearl District — also created affordable housing, and brought more people into the downtown area, he says.

Although it won’t open until 2011, Tucson’s line has already generated development along its route. For every dollar invested, $7 is returning to the community, according to a recent study.

“We recently had the first commercial retail building built in Tucson in over 50 years,” says LaSala. “They saw an opportunity with the streetcar coming past and converted an old building into apartments with a retail front.”

While economic development is the most mentioned benefit of streetcar systems, others are equally important. For one, the systems can limit the number of automobiles flooding downtown areas; a visitor can use public transit to get downtown, then ride the city’s streetcar system to circulate through the area. And since fewer vehicles means less need for parking, existing parking lots can be converted for more productive uses, says Kopiasz.

The number of people streetcars attract to an area also shouldn’t be underestimated, says Jessica Wethington McLean, executive director of L.A.’s Bringing Back Broadway.

“People are able to park and circulate themselves to different places,” she says. “While the economic development aspects can’t be overlooked, the transit ridership aspects are important, as well.”

Promoting such ridership and economic benefits — especially these days — goes a long way toward rallying public support, says L.A.’s Huizar.

“The public sees the economic value, the transit value and the revitalization a streetcar can bring enough to say, ‘Tax me, I want to pay for it,” he says.

The downtown L.A. streetcar system had been discussed for many years but failed to gain traction until Huizar became its political champion, says McLean. Dennis Allen, executive director for the newly formed non-profit L.A. Streetcar Inc., is helping him take it the distance by spearheading the project’s development. Allen’s working to put together a team of consultants, establish a board of directors and organize fundraising efforts.

Successful streetcar projects require this type of commitment and leadership, says Graebner.

“It’s so important to have a champion who’s respected in the community and has some power,” he says. “Many projects are talked about, but not every one gets built.”

Paying the price

That’s because, as with any transit project, streetcar success ultimately hinges on funding. And while there are many ways to fund the projects — which cost upwards of $10 million to $25 million per track mile — most require at least some public funds.

Federal funding is an option, but dollars available for streetcars are scarce. As more communities embrace the idea of a streetcar system, competition for those funds will become even more fierce, streetcar proponents believe. Although Graebner calls funding opportunities “better than ever” and is optimistic that more money will become available as the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) evaluates the merits of streetcar systems, he emphasizes that a combination of public and private funding is necessary to complete these projects. Graebner admits these developments sometimes resemble the children’s story about the Little Red Hen.

“Everyone wants to take the first ride, but often no one wants to do the financial heavy lifting,” he says.

Communities with successful streetcar systems in place utilize a combination of funding methods, adds Bringing Back Broadway’s McLean. For example, the private sector paid for about 40 percent of Portland’s initial line. Seattle’s private sector funded about half of its system. Modeled after these examples of public-private partnership success, L.A. Streetcar hopes to fund a significant portion of its project through a benefit assessment district, McLean says. Money from the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency and federal grants also will help foot the bill.

In light of a government funding crunch and slumping economy, Tucson may need to scrape together another $75 million to complete its streetcar project. While public officials hope to tap into federal stimulus money and federal grants to help fill the void, taking money out of Regional Transportation Authority (RTA) funds also is an option.

“The project definitely will be funded through a mix of FTA and RTA funds,” says Tucson’s LaSala. “In 2006, voters approved increasing sales tax in Pima County to form the RTA and as part of that, they agreed to fund a streetcar system through downtown.”

Indianapolis’ DeVoe hopes the city will be able to fund its system without federal assistance, although it will require community leaders to design a system within a mandated budget.

“We hope to stay away from federal funding because that can increase the cost and delay the project,” he says.

As Omaha Streetcar lobbies for support, other philanthropic groups have taken an interest and paid for the recent feasibility study. Omaha Streetcar seeks to create a streetcar assessment district and solicit private funding to cover its project.

Case by case

Using multiple funding sources is not unheard of with streetcar projects. Depending on the community, Omaha’s Kopiasz says subsidies may include endowments, parking fees, special taxing districts, advertising or sponsorships.

“Each community requires its own solution based on its specific situation,” he says. “The payoff is in the massive economic investment.”

While streetcars require plenty of financial muscle, every new success story makes them easier to sell to the public. And with greater public support, it becomes far easier to generate the public-private funding necessary to complete them. As projects in cities such as Tucson, Los Angeles, Omaha and Indianapolis gain traction, Graebner predicts other communities will consider streetcar systems. Before long, streetcars may no longer be viewed as a thing of the past, but as a modern means of getting around.


Savannah’s ‘Green’ Machine

Add Savannah, Ga., to the growing list of cities that now have a streetcar system in operation. In mid-January, the Savannah Mobility Management System opened the one-mile River Street Streetcar, which runs along the Savannah River and serves old cotton warehouses renovated to feature nearly 80 existing restaurants, pubs, hotels, shops, galleries and boutiques.

The line is part of Dot, Savannah’s Downtown Transportation system, which now enables visitors and residents to navigate downtown aboard an express bus shuttle, ride the streetcar, then hop on a ferry to Hutchinson Island, says Rick Jones, head of the Savannah Mobility Management System, a public-private partnership organized to put the interlinked transportation system in place. Dot operates the fare-free streetcar system through occupancy fees and city funding.

Savannah’s streetcar system also is setting a “green” example. The agency transformed a rebuilt Australian streetcar into a high-tech, self-propelled vehicle that operates via generator and biodiesel fuel. Jones describes the streetcar as a “giant Prius” that utilizes cooking oils collected from the very district it serves to help propel it around. The system consumes about one gallon of fuel per hour.

“It’s cost efficient and environmentally friendly,” he says. “It’s literally and figuratively a green machine.”

— Ronnie Garrett

Ronnie Garrett is a Milwaukee-area free-lance writer/photographer.


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