By Leslie Watson
Every form of public transit has its share of enthusiastic fans, eager to praise its particular virtues. From a design perspective, some might say that nothing rivals the elegant efficiency of the LRT that now speeds so effortlessly along Hiawatha Avenue. Others might argue that on a frigid Minnesota morning, there is no sight more welcome than the amber lights atop a Metro Transit bus as it rumbles towards figures huddled at a corner stop.
But if the measure is sheer, unadulterated cheerfulness, surely nothing beats a streetcar. It’s been more than fifty years since streetcars ran along the streets of Minneapolis, and here, like most places, they are considered part of a nostalgic past, from an era before cars came to dominate so thoroughly our urban streetscape. Over the last decade, however, a growing number of cities across the country are revisiting this neighborly form of mass transit. Heritage trolley lines in places as far-flung as Tampa, FL, Ft. Collins, CO, and Charlotte, NC, have become valuable tourist attractions, and some have even paved the way for public acceptance and endorsement of future light rail systems.
Portland streetcar at a curbside station. Photo courtesy of Light Rail Now, Darrell Clarke, 2003
Now, with cities like Portland, OR, leading the way, streetcars are making the leap from tourist draw to full-fledged member of the transportation infrastructure. Fun to ride, clean-running, and chock-full of charm, streetcars are generating big community pay-offs along the way, both in terms of development dollars and enhanced livability. Emboldened by Portland’s success, cities like Minneapolis are considering whether to reintroduce streetcars to their transit mix. As part of its Ten-Year Transportation Action Plan, Minneapolis is conducting a Streetcar Feasibility Study of the viability of possible streetcar routes, the Midtown Greenway among them. The City is looking to places like Portland for lessons on how to reinvent this traditional form of transit for today’s urban environment.
The Portland Streetcar
In the 1960s, few would have guessed that Portland’s downtown district would someday become one of the most admired in the country. As with many major cities, its urban core was experiencing an escalating drain to the suburbs of people, business, and investment. Envisioned as early as 1972 in the city’s Downtown Plan, the streetcar line was just one element in the far-sighted urban planning that led to the downtown district’s turnaround. Indeed, the Portland Streetcar is widely credited as helping to spur over $1.5 billion in new development along the right-of-way since 1997, when the city chose the final alignment. Although some of that investment would certainly have happened anyway, Portland’s commitment to building the line helped convince developers that the city was serious about fostering an urban renaissance in abandoned or underdeveloped areas. “With each successful project, developers became more and more confident, triggering a fundamentally different investment attitude,” explains Rick Gustafson, Director of Portland Streetcar, Inc. “And the market responded. In the mid-1990s, Portland’s condo market was abysmal, with a projected absorption rate of 30 units per year. But in the years since the line was announced, 7300 housing units have been built—and sold—within two blocks of the street-car line.”
Gustafson also points out that the streetcar was key to achieving the city’s density and location goals for development in its Central Business District. “Although some of this property would have developed, it developed at an enormously higher density because of the streetcar,” he says. Since 1997, land within one block of the alignment has more than doubled its share of captured development, and those projects have achieved much higher density ratios, averaging 90% of the zoned potential (up from less than 50% prior to 1997).
When Portland launched service on its initial 4.8-mile loop of track in 2001, it marked the opening of the first modern streetcar line in the United States since World War II. In 2005, the city added a 1.2-mile loop extension to the River District, and an additional 0.6-mile single-track extension to the Waterfront District will open this fall. The line brought transit service to a number of older Portland neighborhoods and created a connection between a major hospital, downtown, and Portland State University. The extension to the River District serves a vibrant, bustling mixed-use development at the site of a formerly abandoned railyard and brownfield. Through its downtown crossings with the MAX—the region’s 38-mile, interurban LRT line—the streetcar also serves as a feeder-distributor for passengers traveling to and from the outlying suburbs.
The line’s design, construction, and operation have been managed by Portland Streetcar, Inc., a nonprofit corporation formed in 1995 to implement the streetcar line and which now oversees its operations. PSI’s Board of Directors draws from both the public and private sectors, and includes representatives from the businesses, institutions, and other stakeholders along the alignment.
Ever since it opened, the Streetcar’s ridership has also far outpaced projections. Last fall, the streetcar reached weekday ridership of 9,000 people, and in July it celebrated its ten millionth ride. According to Rick Gustafson, the line’s popularity is party tied to the fact that streetcars are simply more pleasant to ride. “Portland did some very serious focus group work in the early 1990s as part of its streetcar study, and we uncovered some very clear concerns regarding ride quality on buses versus rail transit,” he says. “Of course, as an electric vehicle, a streetcar is much quieter and has no emissions, and so it’s not nearly as much of an intrusion in the neighborhood. But people are also just generally more comfortable on streetcars than on buses. Not only is there more room, but rails provide a far smoother ride, both in traffic and especially around turns.” The Portland Streetcar also sees a far greater number of casual or occasional riders than do most bus systems, and has particularly strong weekend ridership. “To someone who is not an experienced transit rider, the bus system can seem very mysterious,” Gustafson explains. “Occasional riders, and especially people who have a choice between car and transit are far comfortable and less intimidated by the rail system because it is so reliable and easy to use.”
Nuts, Bolts, and Couplers
Construction of Portland’s initial 4.8-mile loop and its two shorter extensions totaled around $87 million, most of it coming from local sources, and with the federal government contributing only $5 million. Around one-third of the funding ($28.6 million) came from bonds backed by city parking revenues. The city’s urban renewal agency generated $19.7 million through tax increment financing, based on property taxes to be paid by new developments created along the streetcar line. Another $14.6 million of the initial costs were funded through a “local improvement district,” a species of special assessment available under Oregon state law. The Local Improvement District imposed a one-time contribution from businesses within the district based on their size and proximity to the line. Portland’s reliance on largely local funding meant that construction moved quickly, without the delays that accompany the federal regulatory process. Trimet (the regional transit authority) funds about two-thirds of the line’s $3.3 million annual operating budget, and the remainder comes from parking revenues, fares and promotions.
With a price tag of $25 million per track mile for the initial phase (which included the purchase of seven vehicles), and a cost of around $13 million per trackmile for the two expansions, Portland Streetcar’s construction costs were extraordinarily low for an urban rail transit project. The project achieved these impressive figuresthrough a variety of cost saving measures, including installation of the line using the “shallow-slab" construction technique. The shallow 12-inch-deep track slab design reduced both construction time and the need for utility relocations, at one-half to one-third the cost of traditional light rail street track construction.
By locating ticket vending machines right on the cars rather than at the stations, the streetcar line avoided additional design and security costs--not to mention passengers fumbling desperately for change as the car approaches. The project also adopted a minimal station-stop design without extravagant amenities, and with a platform of less than twelve inches constructed as a simple bulge-out from the sidewalk. A retractable ramp allows level boarding for all passengers, including those with mobility impairments.
Portland currently maintains a fleet of seven streetcars, all built by Škoda-Inekon in Plzen, Czech Republic. Measuring 8 x 66 feet, the cars are narrower and shorter than those on the regional light rail system, allowing them to operate in mixed traffic on neighborhood streets and alongside parked automobiles. While the cars do not have full coupling ability, they have a limited-use towing coupler, which is hidden beneath bumpers to prevent damaging encounters with automobiles.
Jumping on the Streetcar Bandwagon
As part of the 2005Federal Transportation bill, Congress allocated $4 million for development bf a U.S.-manufactured streetcar. Portland will be issuing a request for proposal for the initial $999,000 phase of that grant in the next week or so. With numerous cities across the country investigating the possibility of a streetcar line—over eighty have toured Portland’s system since it opened—the potential domestic market for streetcars certainly looks bright. Developing a U.S.-built streetcar will be critical for cities that rely on Federal matching funds, since they would need to comply with the “60% U.S. content” provision of the Buy America Act.
Next month, Minneapolis will join the ranks of cities that have examined Portland’s streetcar system firsthand. On September 7, a group of MCW partners, city officials, and private developers will travel to Portland for a Streetcar Study Tour, organized by Midtown Community Works. The delegation will meet with Portland city council members, city development representatives, business owners and citizens to learn more about Portland’s streetcar system and to bring home a few pointers.
While there is obviously no guarantee that Minneapolis will decide to build a streetcar line in the city, much less on the Greenway, there is a growing sense that a Midtown trolley would receive an enthusiastic welcome. Earlier this year, the Midtown Community Works Partnership joined with other organizations that have long endorsed a streetcar line as the preferred transit choice along the Greenway. Pedestrian, bike, and environmentally-friendly, a streetcar line offers mass transit at a human scale that complements the place-making vision for the Greenway. Even better, as Portland’s experience illustrates, when it’s thoughtfully conceived and adequately financed, a streetcar line can promote exactly the sort of mixed-use, high-quality development that the Greenway seeks for itself. And that’s the kind of return on investment that a community can take cheerfully to the bank, riding a streetcar all the way.