December 2008

Streetcar Systems Ready for Resurgence and Hungry for Money

by Alex Roman, Senior Editor


 In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, streetcars were constructed to serve burgeoning populations across the U.S. The streetcar was handy for many reasons, among them, transporting people that had few transit options to the city center from outlying neighborhoods. They also spurred development around the areas where streetcar lines were, often creating beautiful tree-lined centers that had all the shopping and necessary amenities people often found themselves having to travel long distances for.

“If you look at the great old city neighborhoods all over the country, you can see where the streetcars used to be,” says Charlie Hales, senior VP at HDR Engineering. “It’s where the great old buildings are, with the storefronts and Craftsmen or English Tudor or Dutch Colonial homes. Every city still has these neighborhoods.”

With the post-war mass production of automobiles, and the subsequent building of highways and infrastructure to support those automobiles, streetcars around the nation soon became ghosts. However, population surges, particularly in urban city areas, have forced as many as 60 cities, by some estimates, to explore the implementation of streetcars once again. One major hurdle to getting these projects off the ground, though, is the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) reticence to fund streetcar systems, forcing many communities to sharpen their pencils and search for alternative funding sources.

Stimulates economic boom
Estimates have found that the population is expected to double in many areas around the U.S., particularly in metropolitan areas, over the next 25 years. Along with that is a growing number of “empty nesters” looking to live in places where mobility is easy, with close proximity to all of the necessary conveniences — shopping, medical offices and markets. This change of lifestyle is also occurring on the opposite side of the spectrum, with many younger professionals, who have spent much of their lives being environmentally conscious, craving areas where they can get around easily via foot, bicycle or mass transit.

The main reason streetcar advocates point out that they are an ideal solution, though, is their potential to stimulate an economic boom. “Streetcars are a catalyst for the kind of urban development that cities are striving to create,” explains Hales. “So far, they’ve been successful. Not just pretty good, spectacularly successful.”

Streetcar advocates need only to point out one system to support their argument that streetcars can bring development — Portland.

Since passenger service began on Portland’s streetcar system in July 2001, approximately $3.5 billion has been invested, with 10,212 new housing units and 5.4 million square feet of office, institutional, retail and hotel construction taking place within two blocks of the streetcar’s now 5-mile alignment, all while creating fewer parking areas. Ridership has also grown quicker then expected, going from 1.4 million riders in Fiscal Year 2001/2002, to a projected 4.3 million in FY 08/09.

That same kind of development is also taking hold in Seattle, where the 2.6-mile Southlake Union line was launched in December 2007.

“If you fly over Seattle, you can see where the streetcar line is, not by noticing the rails in the street, but by noticing the cranes and construction projects along the corridor,” says Hales.

Cliff Henke, senior analyst for Parsons Brinckerhoff, adds that the streetcar line and subsequent development was a major reason that online bookseller Amazon decided to locate its headquarters along the Southlake Union streetcar line. “The Southlake Union project is already wildly successful and streetcars are really playing a big part in stimulating development in the area,” he says.

Another major benefit of streetcar lines is the ability to build a starter line in a relatively short amount of time. “If you follow the mantra, ‘Keep it simple. Stupid.’ It’s very attractive from the standpoint of a municipality, because a politician can potentially do a project within their term of office,” says Tom Furmaniak, VP, southeast region, for LTK Engineering Services.

In fact, many agree that an initial line — usually less than two miles — can go from a standing start to completion within three years at a cost of about $25 million per mile, with long lead items, such as the preferred girder rail, which is only manufactured in Europe, being the largest obstacles once all other ducks are in their proverbial row.


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  • Jan van Eck[ December 11th, 2008 @ 9:30am ]

    The article is incorrect in its suggestion that the automobile alone killed the streetcars. Historically, the streetcar died in the post-war inflation, where the costs of operation went up rapidly and the fare was stagnant. The private companies were regulated by the public utilities commissions, and as there are more voters as riders then as company owners, the politicians simply did not grant fare increases. When the costs of operation surpassed the operating costs, the streetcar lines were simply abandoned. In my community (outside New Haven, CT) vast numbers of streetcars were simply driven onto a spur in a marsh and burned en masse. And that is what happens when the fares - and/or subsidies - are not set to cover costs and provide a return to capital. Have we learned from this?


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