It seems to be running rampant across the country and also here in Sacramento, so this article from Governing Magazine is timely.
Streetcars: If You Build It, Will They Come?
Slow to build and expensive to operate, streetcars could be the most maligned mode of transportation in America. Still, cities keep building them.
The long-awaited Atlanta Streetcar got off to a rough start. The 2.7-mile system began running in the final days of 2014, more than a year and a half after it was originally projected to open. In the time it took to build, construction costs jumped from $70 million to $98 million. Even after its vehicles started making the downtown journey between Centennial Olympic Park and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, problems persisted. Service stopped for several days last summer so crews could fix the overhead line that powers the electric vehicles. Staff shortages frequently reduced the number of cars on the track. Federal regulators dinged the city and its transit system for safety violations. And after an initial free-fares period, ridership dropped dramatically in the first few months the system began charging passengers.
The streetcar’s champions, most notably Mayor Kasim Reed, acknowledge there have been “growing pains.” Getting the streetcar up and running was certainly a novel experience. The 79-foot-long dark blue cars, which can hold as many as 200 passengers, are the first streetcars to travel the city’s roads since 1949.
But Reed and other streetcar backers are not fazed by the initial problems. In fact, they plan on expanding the system into what someday could become a 50-mile network. One of their first goals is to connect the downtown loop with planned streetcar lines on the Beltline, a ring of parks, bike paths and other amenities around the city. A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown business association that helped launch the streetcar, doesn’t think the initial troubles will have lasting impacts on the streetcar’s success. “We have a saying here: Innovation is messy, particularly in public infrastructure,” he says. “This is a very innovative project for Atlanta.”
As Robinson sees it, the streetcar has helped transform areas along its route, bringing economic development and transportation options to the notoriously car-centric city. It ferries tourists between their hotels downtown and attractions that include an aquarium, a new Ferris wheel and the College Football Hall of Fame. It has brought new investment to the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, once the commercial hub of the black community in Atlanta. Connecting Sweet Auburn and downtown also helps bridge longstanding divides within the city. “We have a tale of two cities,” he says, with plenty of public investments on the western edge of downtown, and little to the east. “It’s one of the reasons we built the streetcar.”
Atlanta has a lot of company. Cities across the nation are building streetcars these days to spur economic development, address social ills and, of course, provide more transportation options. But like Atlanta, many of these cities have faced enormous problems reinventing a mode of transportation that all but disappeared from American cities six decades ago. That tension has sparked heated arguments just about anywhere streetcars have been introduced, planned or even just discussed. More often than not, that disagreement comes down to whether streetcars should be evaluated solely on their ability to move people around, or whether they should also be judged on the more amorphous economic, civic and societal benefits they appear to convey.
There’s plenty of fodder for the debate. Atlanta certainly wasn’t the first place to bring streetcars back to its neighborhoods. Cities like Little Rock, Ark.; Portland, Ore.; San Francisco; and Tampa, Fla., opened new systems a decade or more ago, while New Orleans and Philadelphia never shut down their pre-freeway-era systems. But the concept has really taken off in recent years, as walkable neighborhoods have become more desirable and federal funding has helped cities foot the construction bill. Charlotte, N.C.; Salt Lake City; Seattle; and Tucson, Ariz., are among the cities that have recently added streetcars, while Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Tempe, Ariz., and potentially even New York are planning for future systems.
This year, though, could be a banner one for streetcar openings. A total of eight streetcar projects have or are about to come online, including five in cities with no previous service — Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., St. Louis and Washington, D.C., according to Yonah Freemark, author of the blog The Transport Politic, which tracks new transit openings.