Why Streetcars Aren t About Transit Next City Essay

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4/21/2015

Why Streetcars Aren’t About Transit – Next City

Why Streetcars Aren’t
About Transit
The Economic Development Argument for Trams
STORY BY

Aaron Wiener

ILLUSTRATION BY

Steven Howard

PUBLISHED ON

Jan 12, 2014

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On a recent Thursday morning, about 20 people huddled around a glass shelter on
Washington, D.C.’s H Street NE and peered westward along a pair of freshly laid streetcar tracks. One hundred fifty years ago, a streetcar would have pulled up to shuttle passengers eastward. A year from now, too, a streetcar will collect fares from that spot. For now, however, the group stood in the brisk morning breeze and waited for the bus.

In 1862, the Washington and Georgetown Railroad ran the first streetcar in D.C. The new transit mode, powered first by horses and later by electricity, would transform the city for exactly 100 years. John F.
Kennedy was in the White House and tensions over newly integrated schools were roiling when the last one ran in 1962, victim to a population flight to the suburbs, the nationwide car boom and management problems. Decades ago, it would have seemed nostalgic, irrational, even, to imagine the streetcars returning to
D.C. No longer. In cities in every corner of the country, this technology once thought of as obsolete is making a comeback.

Today, four cities in the U.S. have operational modern streetcars: Portland, Seattle, New Orleans and
Tacoma, Wash. (This last city terms its system “light rail” but uses the same cars as Portland.) In the next few years, that number is expected to quintuple, with 16 more streetcar systems funded and in the construction or design stage. In the next 12 months alone, lines in Salt Lake City, Atlanta, D.C., Tucson and Seattle — yes, the city’s second — are scheduled to open. Several other cities have so-called vintage

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Why Streetcars Aren’t About Transit – Next City streetcars that often cater to tourists and are typically not counted in the modern streetcar movement.

The streetcar renaissance isn’t coming cheap. According to the Federal Transit Administration, the 14 streetcar projects that have received U.S. Department of Transportation funding since 2009 have a total anticipated price tag of $1.2 billion. That doesn’t include a few major projects like D.C.’s, whose initial
22-mile priority network alone is expected to cost about $1 billion, according to the District Department of Transportation (DDOT). Of the cost of those 14 projects, federal grants are covering just under half, or $524 million.

While some cities that want streetcars are places that have already embraced transit, others are hardly what you’d call meccas of alternative transportation. Take Kansas City, whose city council recently approved a measure to buy streetcars for a downtown line; Oklahoma City, where the streetcar is expected to start running in 2017; Detroit, which is known as Motor City for a reason and hopes to have its first line running in 2016; or Atlanta, a city dominated by traffic headaches that will open its first line this year.

“It’s radiated out from Portland, and it’s truly a national movement,” says Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who represents most of Portland in Congress and previously helped bring the streetcar to the city as
Portland’s commissioner of public works. “We’re proud of thinking that we’re the model that people look at in terms of what a difference it’s made and how it’s worked.”

A 2012 Blumenauer poster states flatly, “Earl started the national streetcar movement in Portland,” and there’s no doubt that other adopters have looked to the city as an inspiration and a guide. There is a logic to that — Portland has long been a city with a strong interest in alternative modes of transportation. Blumenauer himself is perhaps best known for the oversized bicycle lapel pin he often wears. But the federal government has played a major role, too. In 2005, former…