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March 2014

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Streetcars make a comeback as U.S. cities seek to stimulate economy, increase transit options


— by Julie Sneider, associate editor

Sun Link won't start whooshing along its new track for another few months, but the $196 million modern streetcar system already has had an impact on Tucson, Ariz.'s landscape.

When it opens for revenue service this summer, Sun Link will connect the University of Arizona, University of Arizona Medical Center, the 4th Avenue and Main Gate business districts, downtown Tucson and the city's Westside redevelopment district. City officials estimate about 100,000 people live and work within a half mile of the streetcar route.

And since 2010, the planned system has helped attract student housing, retail shops, restaurants and entertainment-focused businesses. City officials believe Sun Link will help promote Tucson as "a hub of business, retail, the arts, technology, education and innovation," according to the Sun Link website.

Tucson is one of many examples of cities turning to streetcars as a way to stimulate economic development and enhance transportation options between neighborhoods. At the turn of the 20th century, streetcars were the most popular form of urban transit before fading away in mid-century in favor of auto transportation. Today, streetcars are making a comeback, with more than two dozen cities in various stages of planning, developing or launching lines.

Less expensive to build than light-rail or subway systems and more permanent than bus lines, streetcars can help attract residents, tourists and businesses along the routes, urban planners say. Also central to the streetcar trend are the cities' efforts to revive their downtown districts, making them attractive places to live, work and play.

If done right, modern streetcar systems can enhance a downtown's "cool" factor by linking residential housing, higher-density development and entertainment venues with a pedestrian-friendly and easy-to-use transportation environment, says Elizabeth Rao, chair of public transit services at HNTB Corp., which last month published a white paper on U.S. streetcar development.

"I think what's behind the streetcar projects is the trend toward livability in downtown areas, and creating the synergy between development and transportation to make a downtown attractive to residents and visitors," says Rao. "It's the idea of being able to work, live and play in the downtown. You don't have to worry about driving or finding parking to get to where you want to go. Everything is convenient for you."

That trend appeals to both millennial and baby-boom generations, Rao says. And a number of cities have found that adding a streetcar system to the mix has helped draw the kinds of commercial and residential projects that the downtown workers, dwellers and visitors are looking for.

"For example, Portland, Ore., which is considered the original instigator of the modern streetcar, has had quite a bit — almost $3.5 billion — in new economic development along the streetcar route," says Rao.

Tucson's Nearly Ready To Roll

Sun Link was modeled after Portland's system in that it is an effort to attract economic development and private investment, particularly in downtown Tucson's historic area and central city, says Sun Link Project Manager Shellie Gunn. And so far, the plan seems to be working: The Tucson Downtown Partnership has estimated more than $800 million of public and private investment has occurred along the future Sun Link line since the project was approved.

Construction on the project began in March 2012 and was substantially completed in October 2013. Project funding is coming from a $63 million federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, plus local and other sources.

The city's Department of Transportation managed the construction project. Old Pueblo Trackworks, a joint venture comprising Granite Construction Co. and RailWorks Track Systems Inc., built the line, including track, stops, overhead lines, underground utility and roadway work. D.L. Wither Construction is building the maintenance and storage facility.

Oregon Iron Works/United Streetcar is manufacturing Sun Link's eight, all-electric streetcars, which will feature low-floor doors and a cooling system customized to fit Tucson's desert climate. Each car will seat up to 148 passengers. The fourth of the eight cars arrived on Feb. 4, and some are being tested; the remaining cars are expected to arrive by May, Gunn says. The revenue service launch had been scheduled for October 2013, but a delay in the vehicle manufacturing process pushed the opening to summer 2014.

Back To Work In Cincinnati

Construction on the Cincinnati Streetcar project is back on track after a 19-day delay in December, when the newly elected City Council suspended work to evaluate the cost to complete the project versus terminating it. On Dec. 23, the council concluded the project would continue.

"Since then, we've been getting back to work," says Cincinnati Streetcar Project Manager Chris Eilerman.

The system's first phase will be a 3.6-mile, figure-8 loop designed to link major employment centers in downtown Cincinnati and the Uptown area, and connect to the Over the Rhine neighborhood.

Planners say the streetcar will be a vital complement to existing transportation services.

And, as in other cities with streetcars, Cincinnati Streetcar advocates anticipate new business investment and higher property values along the route.

"Over the Rhine is a historic neighborhood with lot of great architecture, but a lot of vacant buildings, as well," says Eilerman. "The streetcar is an opportunity for us to stimulate investment and development in that area, and resurrect it as a mixed-income, mixed-use neighborhood, similar to what Portland and some other cities have done."

The $147.8 million project is being funded through federal and local sources. Federal funds include a $24.9 million Urban Circulator grant, $4 million Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality grant, and a $15.9 million TIGER III grant.

The project's civil contractor is Messer/Prus/Delta, a joint venture comprising Messer Construction, Prus Construction and Delta Railroad Construction Inc. As of early February, construction was going smoothly, with rail installed on about three-quarters of a mile, according to Eilerman. Residents and businesses can follow the construction process via weekly updates on the city's website.

Meanwhile, CAF USA has begun manufacturing the vehicles. Cincinnati's will be the manufacturer's first streetcar built in the United States, Eilerman says.

The initial order is for five vehicles that are 100 percent low floor with level boarding at the platforms, "which is something we're pretty excited about in that it will improve accessibility and eliminate things like bridge plates," he says.

As of last month, streetcar officials were still evaluating how the 19-day work suspension might affect the project's completion and vehicle delivery date. The initial plan called for revenue service to launch in September 2016. Eilerman remains optimistic.

"We're moving forward and things are going well, and we're confident that we'll get it done on time and on budget," he says.

Giving Detroit A Lift

Also moving forward is Detroit's planned 3.3-mile circulating streetcar system along Woodward Avenue. Project advocates believe the streetcar will be a sign of the city's renewal, as Detroit proceeds with its bankruptcy process.

The streetcar stems from a partnership between the city, Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), U.S. Department of Transportation, and support from Detroit's private sector and philanthropic community. The nonprofit M-1 Rail was formed to oversee the streetcar, which will travel along Woodward Avenue between Larned Street and West Grand Boulevard.

M-1 Rail officials say the streetcar will serve as a catalyst to help drive Detroit's economic recovery. Long term, the line is viewed as the future centerpiece of a transit system that will connect people to jobs, retail, sporting venues and cultural activity.

"The bankruptcy is not the end, it's the beginning of a new Detroit," says M-1 Rail Chief Operating Officer Paul Childs. The Woodward Avenue corridor is already experiencing an economic rebirth, and the streetcar will accelerate that growth, he adds.

The project is expected to cost between $135 million and $145 million, including $35 million to $45 million for state- and federally funded Woodward Avenue reconstruction projects that will be completed in conjunction with the streetcar construction. About two-thirds of the project's costs will be covered by private funds.

M-1 officials anticipate the line's construction will begin in spring. Utility relocation work began in December 2013. As of mid-February, construction manager and general contractor Stacy and Witbeck Inc. was seeking proposals from local contractors and suppliers for construction work, while M-1 Rail was negotiating with a preferred vendor for the streetcar vehicles. Additionally, M-1 officials were working on obtaining the necessary streetcar operating licenses from the city and MDOT.

Later this year, M-1 anticipates issuing a request for proposals for an operations and maintenance contract, Childs said.

If all goes as planned, M-1 officials hope construction will be completed and streetcar revenue service will begin in 2016.

Back To The Future In KC

Each city's streetcar project faces its own set of challenges. In Kansas City, Mo., the main challenge is building the two-mile, north-south Downtown Kansas City Streetcar project in a way that doesn't cause too much disruption to businesses located along the route.

"It's a 2.2-mile line that cuts right through the heart of the city," says Andy Auxier, project manager at KC Streetcar Constructors (KCSC), the project's general contractor. KCSC is a joint venture partnership between Herzog Construction Corp. and Stacy and Witbeck.

The line will run along Main Street, and connect the River Market area to Crown Center and Union Station. It will serve the city's Central Business, Crossroads Art, and Power and Light districts, as well as other businesses, restaurants, retail, education and residential facilities, streetcar officials say. Also, a streetcar vehicle maintenance facility and park-and-ride lot will be built in River Market.

To maintain two-way pedestrian and vehicular traffic during construction, the project will be built in three-block phases on alternating sides of the line, Auxier says.

Construction is expected to begin this spring, with completion anticipated for summer 2015. If all goes according to schedule, revenue service will launch at 2015's end. CAF will manufacture the system's four vehicles, which were chosen primarily for their 100-percent, low-floor design, says Jason Waldron, engineer section head of the city's Public Works Department.

Estimated to cost $100 million, the project will be paid for with a voter-approved sales tax increase, parking assessments and federal funding.

When the streetcar starts transporting riders, the launch will mark a back-to-the-future moment in city history.

"During the first half of the 20th century, Kansas City had tons of rail lines for public transportation," says Kansas City Councilman Russ Johnson, a longtime advocate for the downtown streetcar project. "This is a streetcar city; it grew up around streetcars."

Kansas City's first streetcar era ended in the 1950s. When streetcars started their comeback in Portland and other cities at the turn of the 21st century, Kansas City leaders began thinking about transit rail as a mechanism for urban renewal. The downtown project is envisioned as a starter line; city and transportation planners already are studying three possible routes for streetcar expansion, Johnson says.

Linking D.C. Neighborhoods

Like Kansas City, the District of Columbia's project will represent a return of streetcar transportation to the nation's capital when its modern DC Streetcar rolls down the tracks later this year.

In the past, Washington, D.C., had a "robust" streetcar network, with more than 200 miles of track and various companies providing the service. That ended in 1962, when district leaders shut down streetcars in favor of buses, according to the DC Streetcar website.

Today, the modern streetcar network is viewed as another transit option to link district neighborhoods with commercial and entertainment areas, says Ronaldo "Nick" Nicholson, chief engineer of the District of Columbia Department of Transportation (DDOT), which is overseeing the streetcar project. It also will help the district manage its transportation solutions to accommodate population growth.

The nearly completed first segment is the 2.4-mile H Street and Benning Road line, which will serve riders traveling between Union Station and the Anacostia River. Eventually, the H/Benning Line will become part of a 37-mile transit network; planning is under way for the first 22 miles of that larger system, which will include bus and streetcar service.

In late January, DDOT issued a request for qualifications to firms interested in designing, building, operating and maintaining the 22-mile portion.

Ahead, Nicholson sees "innovation" as the next major challenge for district's streetcar network.

"Because we are the nation's capital, there are a lot of viewsheds protected environmentally, so we are looking to decrease the use of catenary," he says. "The district has a number of challenges — whether you're talking about congestion, or snow and ice or just the topography of the area — and we want to work with the industry to come up with an off-wire system."

And like other cities' streetcar project representatives, Nicholson sees the potential advantages a streetcar system will bring to D.C., which he says is experiencing a growth spurt.

"The problem is, we can't expand [D.C.'s] boundaries, which are restricted by Congress," he says. "So we have to manage our transportation solutions. What the streetcar gives us is another option to connect the neighborhoods and also provide economic revitalization of the corridors they fit in."


Browse articles on Sun Link streetcars HNTB Corp. Oregon Iron Works/United Streetcar Cincinnati Streetcar Messer/Prus/Delta CAF USA M-1 Rail Stacy and Witbeck Inc. Downtown Kansas City Streetcar DC Streetcar District of Columbia Department of Transportation

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