A streetcar named progress
PORTLAND, Ore. -- In simpler days of Main Streets and bowler hats, a streetcar system meant a town had “arrived.”
But the clatter of the nickel in the farebox, the motorman’s double clang of the bell and the slow lurch down the track faded quickly after World War II.
In the 1920s, there were about 1,200 electric lines operating nationwide, providing some 15 billion rides a year. By the 1970s, the number of cities with real streetcar systems was down to about five.
But they are making a comeback in several American cities, and more have plans in the wings, projects largely development-driven to revitalize sagging urban areas, and to serve a population segment, often baby boomers, choosing to move back to cities and to simplify their lives when they do.
Reasons for the demise vary but one factor was National City Lines, formed by General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum and Firestone tires. It bought up more than 100 lines in the 1930s and 1940s in many of the larger cities and dismantled them.
Buses and increasingly available automobiles took over. All use gas, oil and tires. Conspiracy theories abound.
The streetcar renaissance stems from planners who see them not only as people-movers but as engines of urban development, encouraging a gradual shift back to cities by people, often older, who enjoy the convenience, miss interaction absent in the suburbs and want to rely less on cars.
Most newer lines are less than five miles long, but transit officials in cities such as Portland, Ore.; Little Rock, Ark.; Tampa, Fla.; Kenosha, Wis.; Tacoma, Wash., and elsewhere say they are making a difference.
Charles Hales, senior vice president of the engineering firm HDR, which works on many streetcar projects, says as many as 60 American cities are in some stage of streetcar planning or development.
In the summer of 2000, Portland and Kenosha became the first cities to bring back streetcar lines after having scrapped them. Others are lined up do to so, but the planning, feasibility studies and financial hurdles can take years.
Some cities are using refurbished old-style oak-and-iron rattlers, “heritage lines,” while others such as Portland have opted for sleek, Czech-made cars that can carry more than 100 passengers.
Portland ridership, initially projected to be 3,500 a day, now tops 9,800 and is growing about 17% a year. The city is putting together about $75 million to match federal money to expand the lines.
The new lines no longer are the commuter systems they once were. They are designed to lure people back into cities, keep them there, and perk up former industrial sites and similarly decaying, underused and under-taxed areas.
Portland has seen about $2.5 billion in new construction, including 7,248 new housing units within three blocks of the line since the plan was announced in 1997. In Little Rock, the figure is between $300 million and $400 million.
“It is not the only reason [for the construction] but most developers admit the streetcar is one of the reasons,” said Keith Jones, who helped design the system there. “The line defines areas where things in the city are happening.”
It extends to North Little Rock, which was suffering downtown decay. “It is having a higher impact there than in Little Rock, where things were happening anyway,” he said.
“We got 80% federal funding, something that’s virtually impossible to do now with the federal government generally limiting funding to 50%,” he said.
The 2.5-mile-line has carried about 400,000 passengers, beyond projections, since it opened in late 2004. An extension is planned to the Clinton Library.
Portland’s initial phase was built largely with increased parking revenue, parking revenue bonds and taxes from a local improvement district along the route. Cities look to increased fare revenue to offset operating costs, which tend to be low. Some sell sponsorship of cars and streetcar stops to offset costs.
“Developers see streetcars as an indication of permanence when they make investments,” said Len Brandrup, director of transportation in Kenosha, outside Chicago. That’s not the case with buses, he said. He said the last century had seen an “unhooking” of land-use decisions and transportation planning.
“Portland is ahead of the country in trying to re-hook them,” he said, reducing auto use and parking space demands.
The 1.9-mile Kenosha line connects an old brownfield area that once housed an American Motors plant, now ripe for development, with the downtown area, government offices and a metro station that serves Chicago. There and elsewhere expansion is planned.
“Energy dependence is an issue nobody really talks about and it is not being resolved at the federal level,” he said. “But decisions can be made at the local level.”
The nonprofit Portland Streetcar, which coordinates Portland’s system, estimates ridership eliminates about 31 million vehicle-miles per year.
In Tacoma, the 4-year-old service connects a University of Washington branch campus, the theater district, museums, the courthouse and a commuter station for trains to Seattle. It carries about 2,900 passengers a day, a level ridership planners didn’t expect to see until about 2010.
Tampa opened its line four years ago with an annual ridership prediction of 350,000. “It has never been that low,” said Ed Crawford of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.
The line connects a former waterfront area now converted to commercial and residential use to the rest of the city. So far, about 60% of the riders are tourists, he said.
“We will come to the point where enough new residential areas are occupied and we will be looking at a new demographic for riders,” Crawford predicted.
Tampa lost its system in 1946, Crawford said, but not to National City Lines. The electric company that owned it dumped it when the city rejected an increase in the five-cent fare.
Modern streetcars haven’t been made in the United States since the 1950s, but by fall of next year United Streetcar, a branch of Oregon Iron Works, plans to have its first one built and operational. The federal government has provided $4 million to advance the project.
Transportation specialists from scores of cities visit Portland to see how the city did it and what, if anything, can be applied back home.
“Portland is leading the rebirth of streetcars in America,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Surface Transportation subcommittee.
He called it a move “back to the future” and predicted a friendlier atmosphere for future expansion.
“No matter who is elected the next president, he will be more sympathetic to infrastructure, and members of both parties agree on that,” he said.