Like any form of public transit, streetcar systems take years of planning and strategy: assessing the needs of a city, and then working with key stakeholders to design, fund and operate the project. Architects are just one piece of the puzzle. After decades of working with local governments, city planners, developers and engineers on complex transit projects of all types, we’ve consistently found several areas of consideration essential to determining the best public transit option for a particular community.
Understanding the Costs of A Streetcar System
On a per-mile, capital cost basis, streetcar systems typically cost more than bus systems, but less than light rail (LRT). One of the biggest contributors to this difference is right-of-way: streetcars and buses typically run within an existing roadway and thus require minimal property acquisition. LRT systems, in contrast, can vary widely in their right-of-way needs: more urban systems may run primarily in existing right-of-way, while systems that connect outlying areas to downtown centers may require extensive land acquisition.
While LRT and streetcar both require electrical substations, the larger consists and often-higher speeds of LRT mean those substations are typically larger in size and/or number. Communications needs also differ. LRT typically requires more extensive signaling and train-to-train communications, public address systems, patron call boxes and closed caption television (CCTV) at stations. Streetcars have less complex train-to-train needs, operate on line-of-sight and typically have simple stops with ‘next arrival’-type signage. Local bus services usually have even fewer needs, operating on line-of-sight with sometimes the least stops of all three modes.
Project costs for recent U.S. streetcar systems have varied from approximately $27.8 million/mile (S Line, Salt Lake City, 2013) to $54.5 million/mile (QLine, Detroit, May 2017). According to 2015 data (most recent available) from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), the operational cost of streetcar systems is $1.41 per passenger mile (compared to $1.09 for buses and $0.75 for LRT). However, among these modes, streetcars cover a higher percent of costs via farebox (31.8% compared to 25.7% for buses and 27.9% for LRT). Ongoing operations and maintenance (O&M) costs can also vary from system to system. For example, Detroit’s 3.3-mile QLine estimates annual O&M costs approximately $6 million, Cincinnati 3.6-mile Bell Connector estimates O&M at $4.2 million, and Salt Lake City’s 2.0-mile S-Line estimates annual O&M at $1.5 million.
Funding for Streetcar Systems
Most streetcar systems to date have received federal funding, usually Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) funds, but these grants have covered less than half the total project cost. The balance has been covered by a wide variety of state and local sources, including downtown improvement districts, local developer contributions, regional metropolitan planning organizations or commissions, property and income taxes, private/institutional/philanthropic organizations, clean air funds, water funds, and other similarly focused funding streams.
Operations and maintenance requires other ongoing revenue, such as tax increment financing, hotel/motel tax, regional tolls, and parking fees and fines. Advertising and naming rights are another potential source of funding: both Cincinnati Bell Connector and Detroit’s QLine (Quicken Loans) have taken on naming partners for their systems as a whole, while vehicle wraps, interior posters and shelter advertising provide additional revenue streams. In Seattle, nearly 25% of O&M costs have been covered by advertising (although this percentage has fallen in recent years).
While most streetcar systems are not actually owned by the local transit authority, they are often operated by that authority. Transit agency participation in the planning and construction process has traditionally been looked upon favorably by federal funding agencies and can help avoid many of the pitfalls and delays of navigating that funding process alone. In many cases, the transit agency has acted as the grantee for federal funding and played an advisory role as local jurisdictions overseeing the planning and construction process.
Streetcars can be owned and operated by a variety of entities including transit authorities, cities and even nonprofits. For example, the Portland Streetcar is managed by Portland Streetcar Inc., a nonprofit public benefit corporation whose directors report to the City’s Bureau of Transportation.
Regardless of who owns and operates the streetcar, local champions from the private sector can play a significant role in getting a streetcar project moving. Detroit’s QLine in particular came about due to the perseverance of a private group of business leaders who continually advocated for the project as it morphed from a streetcar project, to a light rail project, and back again to streetcar. These type of public/private partnerships turn streetcar systems from ideas into realities, providing a platform to incorporate multiple perspectives to meet the needs of a community.
In addition to addressing technical and financial concerns, perhaps the most important partnership is with the community. Streetcar routes must go where people want to go, shelters and signage should integrate with and enhance existing community character, and system amenities should be customized to address each community’s top concerns, be it climate, seating or public art. The best way to determine community priorities in all these areas is, simply, to ask them.
Early ‘brainstorming’ sessions begin to give a real picture of how the community views itself, and provide direction for design alternatives. Input on alternatives — not enough shade, layout of ticketing machines is not intuitive, for example — further refine the design. It is rarely possible to meet every community request, but we work to make sure that every individual knows their input was heard. By using an iterative design process that includes both design and technical professionals, as well as the local community, government and transit agency, every new system can be customized to meet not only functional but also the aesthetic and experiential expectations of its users.
This article is co-authored by Rhonda Bell, an Urban Design and Landscape Architecture Senior Associate with RNL and Phil Klinkon, AIA, NCARB Pacific Region Transit Director at RNL (www.rnldesign.com).
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