Cincinnati Dallas Fort Worth New Orleans Phoenix Streetcar

Streetcar Projects Advance Nationwide Thanks to Local Initiative

» In spite of questions over whether the federal streetcar program has a future and the death of a project in Fort Worth, local dollars are distributed to build new links in Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, and Tempe.

Last week’s decision by officials in Fort Worth, Texas to halt planning work on the city’s streetcar line struck a blow to the nation’s nascent collection of modern streetcar lines, one of the Obama Administration’s biggest transportation policy moves. Local leaders backed down from a $25 million grant received from the federal government earlier this year, arguing that the city wasn’t ready to invest its own money in a project that some suggested shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers.

The decision reinforced the commonly heard argument that the federal government is encouraging a form of transportation that is not fully accepted by people on the ground. It is certainly true that Fort Worth was far from prepared to accept the grant from Washington when it was first distributed, as the city had yet to specify a route or identify a definite local funding source.

The disappointing news from Cowtown, however, was the exception to the rule this month as Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, and Tempe worked to establish their own local revenue streams for major streetcar projects.

In Cincinnati, Mayor Mark Mallory celebrated the decision by Ohio’s Transportation Review Advisory Council to award the city’s planned streetcar line $35 million in state funds. After receiving a federal Urban Circulator grant this summer and dedicating corporate and local dollars to the line, Cincinnati is now ready to break ground on the first phase next year. Dallas, which won a $23 million TIGER grant for a new downtown streetcar link in February and later received more funding from Washington for an extension to its McKinney Avenue historic streetcar, now has $10.8 million more from the Regional Transportation Council to spend on both projects. And New Orleans, whose Loyola Avenue connection is fully funded by the federal government, is considering redirecting local dollars to build another line down Rampart Street. Millions of dollars in new development is already being directed to sites adjacent to proposed streetcar stops in New Orleans.

The funds once earmarked for Fort Worth are likely to be redistributed by the U.S. Department of Transportation to another more interested city like Washington, D.C., which has a major streetcar system planned but which has yet to receive any federal funds for its construction.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix metropolitan planning organization has agreed to move a 2.6-mile streetcar planned for Tempe to the region’s long-term transportation plan. Though the group will ask the federal government to cover half the project’s costs — likely to add up to about $160 million — this represents a concrete commitment to spend local dollars on the project. Ten years ago, the only city in the country that would have agreed to such a major engagement was Portland. Other cities that have received U.S. funds and which are likely to move forward with their own projects over the next few years include Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and Tucson.

Together, this news represents a strong endorsement for streetcar projects at the local level: Interest in streetcar construction extends beyond the boundaries of the nation’s capital. The mode’s expansion into metropolitan areas nationwide is genuinely supported by a whole bevy of citizens and leaders from coast to coast, willing to put up their own funds for projects that they think will improve their communities’ development patterns and mobility options.

Nevertheless, future federal support for streetcar projects has been put into question by the arrival of a new Congress that clearly does not share the Obama Administration’s enthusiasm for this particular mode of transportation. New House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has supported expanding the federal pot of funds for transportation, but he has also argued for increasing Congressional oversight over executive agencies such as the Department of Transportation. The grant programs that have contributed mightily to the build-up of streetcar networks — TIGER, Small Starts, and Urban Circulators — currently give the Secretary of Transportation (Ray LaHood) decision-making powers over which projects to fund. Mr. Mica has implied that he thinks such decisions should be made by legislators; would a new Republican majority in the house choose to spend that money on streetcars?

Democrats have picked as their ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV), someone who, to put matters mildly, has not made much of an effort to demonstrate his support for alternative transportation. He doesn’t seem likely to be a big voice in favor of devoting more of Washington’s money to streetcars.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the Congress has any interest in making room for further discretionary grant programs at all, considering the complete lack of consensus on how to fund maintenance of the nation’s infrastructure, let alone expansions in the form of streetcars.

Nonetheless, the clear commitments given by some localities to their own streetcar programs indicate that there is a future for such transportation in the United States, even if Washington takes its hands off.

Fort Worth Streetcar

Fort Worth Wins Grant for Streetcar, But Whether It’s Ready Is Another Question

» Federal government commits to funding share for project, but the city isn’t yet ready for full investment. Should Washington be promising money for under-planned programs?

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Fort Worth $25 million to begin work on a new inner-city streetcar line, putting it in the ranks of a small group of lucky cities that received similar funds from Washington, including Charlotte, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. The grant, according to the government, will go to a 2.5-mile one-way rail loop through the center city with 20 to 25 stations, to be served by three vehicles.

The exact route has yet to be defined, because the city is in the midst of a large-scale study of six potential corridors extending from the office district into the surrounding neighborhoods. The routes all connect to the Intermodal Transit Center east of downtown, where streetcars would meet up with Trinity Railroad Express commuter trains, Amtrak, and local buses. In order to receive the federal grant, the city is required to provide at least a 20% local match.

Fort Worth’s luck in receiving funds over a whole host of competing cities hasn’t prevented some local politicians from criticizing the project and questioning whether the city should move ahead with the line. Councilman Jungus Jordan, a long-time streetcar opponent, suggested last week that other infrastructure investments were more critical to the future of the city. The council still must approve a source of local funds — likely to be based in a form of tax-increment financing in the affected districts — to ensure the rail program’s successful implementation.

If opposition is fomented, the current schedule for the program could be pushed aside and a dream for a rail line through the center city could be set aside, just as it has been repeatedly over the past decade. But if all goes well, the city estimates that it will be able to recommend phasing for the system by September; the initial segment could be up and running in four years. The DOT’s claim that it is sponsoring a “streetcar loop” doesn’t mean that a route has been determined; Fort Worth could alter its preferred alignment and still collect the federal grant, presumably as long as the line connects the Intermodal Transit Center with the business district.

The Obama Administration is making a policy of prioritizing streetcar connections between intercity rail stations and office areas, as proven by grants to do so in Detroit, New Orleans, and Tucson. The Fort Worth line would fit well within that effort and encourage the extension of the city’s “livable,” walkable areas — now the stated end goal of the DOT in approving new transportation projects.

But the situation in Fort Worth suggests that the DOT may be putting too much trust in the potential of some local governments to move forward on planning construction projects and to establish revenue sources apart from those provided by the federal government.

Unlike the streetcar lines proposed for Charlotte and Cincinnati, which are basically ready for construction, Fort Worth’s line is under-planned. The fact that the city has yet to settle on a final alignment is problematic since it means that Washington is agreeing to finance a project that has yet to be fully defined. Is that sound policy?

Under the New Starts process, which admittedly funds much larger capital projects, transit authorities must undergo years of studies and public review before receiving money for construction from the federal government. By the time the DOT has signed a full funding grant agreement, ensuring financial support for a defined percentage of costs, transit agencies have had to justify their choice of transportation mode, choose a specific alignments, pick stop locations, establish estimated ridership figures, and guarantee local financial support for the rest of the project’s cost.

Fort Worth, not required to do so under the Urban Circulator program from which it received funding, has done none of that so far. But it will have to go through many of the same steps before it can begin laying tracks in the street.

To some extent, that’s good news, since it means that the federal government won’t be as severe in the future about distributing money to public transportation projects, which have traditionally been forced to submit to a far more rigorous evaluation process than highway projects. On the other hand, there’s a lot of merit to the idea that Washington shouldn’t be throwing money around willy-nilly; why should Fort Worth get funds if it’s years away from using them? Shouldn’t the government wait to award money until when cities are ready to use it for construction?

But the under-preparedness of this Texas city may be a reflection of the federal government’s attempts to speed the grant distribution process beyond the capacity of local governments that had no access to cash for streetcar lines just two years ago. There was little federal planning money available until recently to pay for studies considering these types of projects. I can only hope that in the future that the DOT can be a bit more exacting in allocating construction dollars only to cities that are prepared to take advantage of them.