The Appeal of Modern Streetcars Continues to Mount, But There Are Obstacles to It Bringing Mobility Gains

Atlanta's Georgia Transit Connector

» 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

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Dallas, a Transit Builder if Not Pioneer, Moves Forward on Streetcar

Dallas Downtown Streetcar

» A 1.6-mile streetcar line would bring dubious benefits to this Texas city.

Not all transit expansion projects are created equal — let that be clear. Sure, expanding public transportation options in general usually contributes to the expanded mobility of urban residents. But governments, as we know all too well, have limited funds. So identifying the best possible investments for the money must be an essential part of political decision-making.

Which brings us to Dallas, which submitted plans this week for a 1.6-mile streetcar from the city’s downtown to the Oak Cliff neighborhood just southwest across the Trinity River. It could be the first rail line in the U.S. to feature streetcars that use battery propulsion instead of always having to rely on overhead catenary. The project was funded by a U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER grant in February 2010 and it will be

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Alignment Questions for Detroit’s Rail Line, Almost Ready for Construction

Woodward

» Light rail or streetcar approach for a project whose proponents claim would restore the health of this city’s core?

Unlike similar projects in nearby cities like Cincinnati, Detroit’s planned light rail line for Woodward Avenue has near-universal support from just about everyone in local and state government — even though it is being constructed in a city that is shedding population quickly. The $528 million route, which would by 2016 extend 9.3 miles from downtown to the city’s borders at 8 Mile, has been the priority of regional transportation planners for years. And with federal support for the first phase of the corridor announced in February 2010, construction is supposed to begin later in 2011, at least for the 3.4-mile section from Hart Plaza to Grand Avenue.

Aligning the project with other transit offerings in Downtown Detroit, however, has become a contentious issue. The Detroit DOT, which

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Austin Contemplates Urban Rail, but Skepticism is in the Air

Downtown Austin

» A year after the opening of a commuter rail line to the city’s northern suburbs, Austin dedicates funding to planning a light rail line that focuses on the inner city.

In 2000, Austin came within 2,000 votes of approving a $2 billion, 52-mile light rail system that would have run through the city and its suburbs along east-west and north-south corridors. The first stage, estimates suggested, would attract more than 30,000 daily riders and serve the city’s most prominent destinations, including downtown and the University of Texas.

The failure of that referendum, however, forced those plans to be abandoned. Local transit proponents replaced it with the much less ambitious 32-mile Capital MetroRail, which opened in 2010 for a cost of about $100 million. Like many similar commuter rail lines built over the past few years, MetroRail’s limited frequencies and poor downtown connectivity have limited ridership to less than

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Losing State Support, Cincinnati’s Streetcar Project in Peril

Downtown Cincinnati

» Wavering commitment to this — and similar infrastructure projects around the country — sends the wrong message about the seriousness of public investment in better transport.

Over the past few months, American transportation projects have been canceled at an accelerated rate: From New Jersey to Florida to Wisconsin, rail programs that have been in the making for years have been abandoned because of conservative opposition to expansion in transportation spending at all levels of the federal system.

This movement, which has been grounded in claims of fiscal responsibility, has sent a disappointing message about the commitment of the American public sector to projects it has previously endorsed.

Ohio Governor John Kasich (R) made his mark last year, eliminating state support for a new intercity rail line to connect Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland — despite the fact that the federal government had agreed to pay for all of the project’s construction

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The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark

yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com

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