Winston-Salem Proposes Modern Streetcar Line

Winston-Salem Streetcar MapNorth Carolina city would rely on stimulus money to complete state’s first trolley line.

As America’s streetcar renaissance continues, more and more medium-size cities are considering an investment in the mode. The latest addition to the game: Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a city of about 200,000 and the state’s fifth-largest. Transportation planners envision a 2.6 mile corridor financed by federal government stimulus funds that would redefine downtown mobility there.

The proposed trolley would run in a figure-8 pattern in mixed traffic and connect the central business district with a future commuter rail station that would provide service to nearby Greensboro if built in the next decade. Similar proposals have been under consideration since 2003.

Planners have contracted out with transportation planners HDR Engineering to analyze potential routes, whose cost would likely total $65 million. Attempting to leverage the benefits of improved transportation to increase commercial and residential development in the renewing downtown is one of the city’s primary priorities with the construction of the line.

A 2006 estimate of daily ridership indicated that 5,800 riders would take the streetcars each day in 2010 and 9,500 by 2025. This compares to a trolley bus running the route today which attracts a mere thirty-seven people a day; planners argue that the rail system would be able to vastly increase the number of people choosing to ride public transportation.

The federal government should have other priorities for streetcar funding — larger, more transit-oriented cities such as Seattle are applying for the same limited pot of money to build new trolley lines. Winston-Salem’s ridership estimates, on the other hand, are undoubtedly overestimates. Though the city’s downtown is being redeveloped, street activity remains minimal and a car culture predominates.

So what hope does a city like Winston-Salem have in investing in such a streetcar? Is there some minimal density or population that should be necessary before Washington decides to invest federal government revenues in a project?

There’s no easy answer to these questions. There is no question that investing in a new trolley would act as an economic development tool and improve the chances for the city to expand its downtown core. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine this system attracting fewer than 1,000 riders a day considering its limited destinations and the anemic ridership on the existing downtown trolley bus. As with other recent proposals, this project suffers from underambition; it’s simply too short a line to attract many users.

If the federal government finds this project fiscally unjustifiable, Winston-Salem could invest its own funds in the project, of course. After all, why is Washington’s money somehow more expendable than local spending? Shouldn’t cities like Winston-Salem, which have spent the last fifty years finding anyway possible to avoid building livable communities, have to take some step in favor of transit before Washington throws its money at an questionable project?

Meanwhile, highway funds, which are distributed to metropolitan planning organizations, are mostly “flex” dollars that could be spent on transit programs — if the city is willing to take the risk. Shouldn’t municipalities be willing to sacrifice their roads for the benefit of transit? I don’t think Winston-Salem is, but you never know.

Image above: 2005 streetcar plan, from the Winston-Salem Journal

10 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Nothing is more frustrating than seeing a politician come back from a junket to Portland thinking that “all” his city needs is a streetcar. The Portland Streetcar didn’t make Portland a sustainable city. The causation runs more the other way.

    Some of Portland’s recent redevelopment may have been “triggered” by a streetcar, but that development was the result of many other necessary conditions. Portland today is the product of decades of aggressive planning, consensus building, and hard work in the trenches of policy. Portland’s goals had been worked through in minute detail, so that everything the city did — parking pricing, zoning, street design, even the government’s own locational decisions — was an expression of a commitment to building a pedestrian-oriented city.

    So I’d like to see the Feds say this. We’ll fund your streetcar when you demonstrate that you’ve laid the groundwork for it. Show us your zoning, your parking policy, your criteria for pedestrian and bike facilities. When you can show that you’ve duplicated the consensus and commitment that got Portland to where it was when the streetcar was proposed in the 90s, then you’re ready for a Federally funded streetcar.

  • Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

    While streetcars cater well to dense neighborhoods, they also encourage higher density development in neighborhoods which aren’t as dense when the streetcar is put into service.

    Every city in the USA is faced with this dilemma. Some motivation (e.g. tax money) is required for us to build streetcar lines especially in medium sized cities so that more dense development will occur “naturally”.

    • Dan

      If you look at the proposed map for Winston-Salem, it appears that the line will be entering an already dense older neighborhood to connect the hospital to the downtown. These are the main economic drivers of the city, so I see little new development in the first phase. Later phases would need to include loosely populated neighborhoods to see the new development effect.

  • Where will the regional train be going through, and how will that connect to the streetcar?

    Indeed, could this be a longer route if it was a tram-train?

  • Portland is not a sustainable city. It pretends it is, but its per capita CO2 emissions are 15 tons, compared with 11 in San Diego and San Francisco, 7 in New York, 6 in London, and 4 in Washington.

  • NikolasM

    What is your source? Either way it is lower than the US average by 5 tons.

  • Here. The headline is that Portland cut its greenhouse gas emissions from 16.8 tons in 1990 to 14.4 in 2006. When even San Diego has considerably lower emissions (11.2, from the PlaNYC documents), you know something is deeply wrong.

  • NikolasM

    I think the accounting is arbitrary between cities. Portland didn’t include any carbon offsets according to the news article while other cities did. Having greenhouse gases lower than they were in 1990 despite a 15% increase in population is pretty good.

  • AlexB

    Isn’t there something wrong with this project if it is a streetcar and the cost is $65 million? At 2.6 miles, that seems high. I thought streetcars were supposed to be very cheaper than a full blown light rail/tram, just some tracks in an already existing road, a glorified bus, maybe $10 million/mile?

    While I sympathize with the opinion expressed in the post that the money could be better spent elsewhere, I have to think that a short streetcar connecting a small town’s biggest destinations with a commuter train should be standard for all cities over 100,000 people. I know the money is in short supply, and ridership would be low, but the theory is sound.

  • Woody

    “streetcars supposed to be very much cheaper than a full blown light rail/tram, just some tracks in an already existing road, a glorified bus, maybe $10 million/mile?”

    Not exactly. Usually the underground utilities need protection before you lay the streetcar rails, and that often escalates into new mains, new sewer pipes, etc., and a complete rebuilding of the street. That way a city gets a lot of its utility costs shifted to the federal transportation budget. See Houston, for example.

    And the railcar probably costs a good bit more than a glorified bus. It will last at least twice as long, after all.

    So this figure does not strike me as being out of line. And I agree with you, it’s a very reasonable goal to have a tram in every medium sized city in America. Like the French cities, excuse my language. If this is designed as a starter line, and later some lines connect to reach campuses, hospitals, employment centers, and residential neighborhoods, all the better.

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