» Streetcar projects are advancing seriously in cities across the nation, but their quick rise to the top of municipal transportation priority lists may not be matched by sound thinking in terms of project design.
If the Obama Administration’s push to construct high-speed rail lines has suffered numerous delays as a result of Congressional inaction and state-level criticism, its decision to allow numerous streetcar projects to move forward through the federal funding pipeline has produced a veritable explosion of project proposals across the country. Yet the manner in which cities are pushing these schemes smacks of poor policy making and suggests that a better use of limited transportation dollars is possible.
The recent promotion of streetcars in the United States is something of an aberration — at least in terms of recent history. Generally ignoring the successes of the locally funded vintage 2001 Portland Streetcar, the Bush Administration repeatedly informed municipalities across the country that their transportation policies should emphasize bus improvements over road-running rail lines. Though the SAFETEA-LU transportation authorization bill passed in 2005 specifically included a provision for limited-cost projects such as streetcars (called Small Starts), the Department of Transportation under Bush refused to fund them either in 2006 or 2007 (fiscal years 2007 and 2008), picking BRT projects instead — despite significant local demand for rail.
In early 2008, though, the Bush Administration seemed to relent, agreeing to recommend the funding of the Portland Streetcar Loop — and then beginning in 2009, the Department of Transportation under President Obama pressed forward with TIGER and Urban Circulator grants, encouraging cities from Dallas to Seattle to apply for federal funds and more recently allowing project development to move towards construction in cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, and Tucson.
Over the past few months, the interest of cities in streetcars has seemingly exploded even further. Providence has proposed a two-mile route for $126 million; San Antonio wants a line that will spur real estate development; Milwaukee envisions a $64 million corridor through downtown; Kansas City plans $101 million worth of tracks between City Market and Union Station; and Arlington and Fairfax Counties in Northern Virginia are moving forward with a streetcar down the Columbia Pike. Each plan’s proponents will apply for — and expect to win — federal funds to cover most costs.
These are not isolated examples of cities suddenly interested in a new transit mode. Rather, the relatively sudden availability of dollars from Washington, D.C. has encouraged new thinking about what kinds of transit are possible. The fact that streetcars can be built with lower per-mile costs than other forms of rail transit, their ability to attract denser development in some cases, and the possibility of farming off most of their costs to another government entity has made them incredibly appealing. Washington, seeking transit projects that are visible and reinforce dense communities, has been a willing partner in this effort.
For the most part, this has been beneficial policy, since it has encouraged more cities to think seriously about how to invest in high-quality transit. In addition, it has spread rail transit beyond the nation’s biggest metropolitan regions, a trend that arguably will be helpful in encouraging choice riders onto transit systems and simultaneously improve the daily commutes of regular riders.
But the difficult side of the story is that many of the projects are planned to be constructed in a manner that provides an inferior quality of service than the bus lines they replace. In one city, the transit agency proposed building a line with only one track, making it impossible to increase the frequency of service (the situation was fortunately resolved in a second grant); in others, the streetcar lane would be located in a section of the street vulnerable to considerable delays from backed-up and turning cars — because streetcars, unlike buses, are not able to navigate around sources of delay. Vehicles proposed for services have universally been of limited capacity, meaning they offer little improvement in terms of passenger space over articulated buses.
Most importantly, almost every one of the major streetcar projects proposed has refused to separate trains from automobile traffic for the majority of the routes, despite the fact that doing so usually requires little more than different types of paint, camera enforcement, and a few barriers, all of which can be installed at minimal cost.
This means that streetcars will be stuck in the same traffic as everyone else, making speed improvements impossible. The lack of dedicated street right-of-way for streetcars likely stems from a sense that it would be politically difficult to promote removing lanes from automobilists and providing them to transit users. Yet the vast majority of traffic lanes, after all, are off-limits to trains; why is it so crazy to imagine a few dedicated to streetcars?
These should not be considered nit-picky complaints, since the cities promoting streetcars are investing millions of public dollars in their lines — often at an expense of $50 million per mile and up. At those costs, an effective quality of service should be standard.
Fortunately, at least one city seems to have seen the light. Seattle’s recently released Transportation Master Plan recognizes the fundamental difference between what it calls local and rapid streetcars, noting that most of such projects in the U.S. so far (including Seattle’s own South Lake Union Streetcar) have skewed towards the former type, which I have described above.
The Plan notes two major possible rapid streetcar lines for Seattle, extending from the downtown core to the Ballard and University Districts that would “Achieve faster operating speed and greater reliability through longer spacing between stops and more extensive use of exclusive right of way.” Trains would be either larger or coupled “to accommodate high passenger loads.” Though significant sections of these rapid lines as currently planned would remain in shared lanes with automobiles, these proposals are the closest U.S. transit agencies have yet come to the ideal of developing cheaper light rail by effectively running it in street rights-of-way (like a European tramway), which is what the rapid streetcar concept is advocating.
Simply suggesting moving streetcars into their own dedicated lanes, however, is not always a universally appealing solution: Cities like Sacramento and Buffalo, for instance, have chosen to study reintegration of formerly transit-only streets into their downtown automobile circulation networks because they were concerned that restricting rights-of-way to trains was limiting business activity. Whether or not this is an accurate assessment of the effect of these transit malls, they were perceived as negative enough to the community that attempting to replicate their forms today cannot always be the right answer. Every city must decide for itself the best way to integrate new train systems into their streetscapes.
And yet the Bush Administration’s bias against streetcars was logical from the standpoint of encouraging pure mobility; for the same cost, rapid buses provide faster and more reliable service in dedicated lanes. In order to justify the continued enthusiasm of municipalities for streetcars, we should push for guidelines that ensure that services must be designed to operate as quickly and efficiently as possible. Streetcars may be less expensive than comparative types of light rail, but at the cost we are spending for them we should expect more out of them.
Image above: A simulation of a streetcar line in Atlanta, from Georgia Transit Connector