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