If a new generation of transportation advocates and federal officials has their way, California will soon have miles of brand-new rail lines, strategically sited to enliven cities, increase real estate values, and whisk passengers several whole blocks at speeds of… nearly 20 miles per hour.
High-speed rail, it's not. But $40 billion, it's not either.
While the state plans for its proposed high-speed rail network, a raft of California cities are pursuing a more twee type of rail travel. Ubiquitous in the early 20th century, trolleys and streetcars are emerging as a newly popular form of intra-city transit. But even the staunchest rail buffs admit that transportation is only part of the benefits that over three dozen cities across the country – and more than a few in California -- are seeking as they to join the streetcar trend.
The streetcar bandwagon, which has picked up dozens of cities nationwide, including Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, and Santa Ana, is fueled not only by nostalgia but also by new attitudes about both urbanism and transportation planning.
In transportation terms, streetcars play the same role as downtown shuttle buses – they are "circulators" connecting places in close proximity to one another. Many planners see streetcars not as transportation projects at all and are instead "place-making" devices, according to Maureen Pascoe, capital improvement manager for the City of West Sacramento. Pascoe is in charge of the Riverfront Streetcar Plan, which is being developed in cooperation with the City of Sacramento.
"The (transportation) paradigm is changing from mobility to accessibility," said Gloria Ohland, the Los Angeles-based author of Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century. "Accessibility is really about things like streetcars….so you can be in one place have access to a lot of things without having to drive from point A to point B."
Streetcars have been proposed for downtown Los Angeles' Broadway, which is lined with underutilized historic buildings. The effort is supported with up to $10 million in redevelopment funds and Los Angeles County Metro released a request for proposals seeking firms to conduct an initial environmental study.
The City of Oakland would replace its Broadway Shuttle bus with a streetcar that would link Jack London Square to the rest of downtown and at least one BART station. Long Beach and Pasadena officials envision streetcars for their respective cities' historic downtowns. A streetcar has even been proposed for the edge city of Warner Center, in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.
Meanwhile, officials in West Sacramento see a streetcar as the catalyst that will enable it to share more of its big sister's vibrancy; its 1.2-mile segment would originate at City Hall, cross the Tower Bridge over the Sacramento River and connect with a system that the City of Sacramento is planning.
"Too many people (in Sacramento) think that the world ends at the Sacramento River," said Pascoe. "We really see ourselves as the other side of downtown. We are right at the core of the region and we plan to develop."
Similarly, Santa Ana's proposed streetcar system would link the city's downtown with a regional transit hub in adjacent Garden Grove.
Each of these cities can look to San Francisco for inspiration. There, vintage streetcars have been running along Market Street and throughout the city continuously for over a century.
Unlike light rail lines, which dominated rail transit over the past two decades, streetcars travel at grade and usually in the flow of traffic, without dedicated rights of way. It is their integral role in the streetscape that, supporters say, make them sought-after tools for urban development and economic development.
"They can catalyze development because of their real and perceived sense of permanence," said Zach Seal, Broadway Streetcar Project manager for the City of Oakland. "Once the developers see the tracks laid in the asphalt they know the streetcar will be there for decades and know they can make large investments in dense, green, mixed use housing along the streetcar line."
Long Beach City Councilmember Suja Lowenthal views her city's pursuit of a streetcar as a way to appeal to new transit riders who are attracted to fixed rail: "streetcars serve a different customer than buses, attracting more choice riders and tourists/visitors who are willing to travel on a rail system in an unfamiliar city."
By that same token, however, streetcars' most often-cited downside is that by traveling in the flow of traffic they cannot move any faster than the average bus or car. Moreover, transit planner and streetcar critic Jarrett Walker notes in a recent blog post, "Streetcars: An Inconvenient Truth," that for the cost of a streetcar system local businesses, property owners, and redevelopment agencies could invest in pavement upgrades, street furniture, and myriad other amenities that would enhance pedestrian life.
Moreover, streetcar systems do not tend to serve regional goals.
"It is a fad; it's always been a fad. That doesn't mean necessarily that it's a bad thing," said Lisa Schweitzer associate professor of transportation at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development. "Because it's not a commuter system….it's not really something that's going to change climate or alter air quality."
It may, however, change the fortune of local landowners and urban boosters.
A 2008 report commissioned by Portland Streetcar contends that up to $3.5 billion had been invested within two blocks of the alignment since the system began operating in 2001. Likewise, residential and commercial densities had increased, with over 10,000 new housing units and over 5 million square feet of new commercial space. The report notes, however, that the streetcar is just one element of a strategy to promote investment in the city's core.
"More than streetcars being transit projects, they are really economic development projects with transportation benefits," said Ohland. "They promote the whole local, sustainable, green trend. They would become such groovy neighborhoods with a streetcar."
These developments often come right out of the smart growth pattern playbook, replete with mixed use buildings, pedestrian improvements, and even locally owned businesses that are, according to Ohland, sensitive to the unique character of historic urban neighborhoods.
Backers say that the investment potential and concentrate benefits enable them to seek private investment from local businesses and landowners who stand to capture the economic benefits of a streetcar line. Streetcar planners say that businesses and landowners have been receptive to ideas for schemes such as benefit assessment districts. LA Streetcar Inc.'s website notes that the private sector funded 30% of Portland's line and nearly 50% of Seattle's; the group seeks similar participation among stakeholders in downtown Los Angeles.
"All of the long-term studies of transit show that the main beneficiaries of public investment are the people who own land next to it," said Schweitzer. "And if we know this why can't we find ways of moving some of this….increase in value up-front and allocating it across the lifetime of the investment?"
Streetcars' fate may ultimately rest with the largesse of the federal government, which has of late introduced new policies and funding criteria that embrace circulators and urban livability.
This year the Department of Transportation awarded its first round of Urban Circulator Grants, dedicated to helping cities improve their internal transit (including streetcars), bike, and pedestrian networks. These grants emerged out of a new partnership between DOT, the department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency. This partnership has led to a major shift away from typical transportation grants, which consider the worthiness of a transportation project based largely on its cost-effectiveness, based on travelers' time savings, and towards a method of evaluation that takes into account broader neighborhood benefits.
"A few years ago it was very difficult if not impossible to get federal New Starts money for streetcars," said Seal. "Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood tweaked the scoring system for rail projects and put less weight on speed and more weight on things like quality of life and economic development."
Sixty-five cities applied for the first round of Urban Circulator Grant funding, which was awarded this summer. $130 million of the total $293 million was dedicated to streetcar projects and Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, and Charlotte, N.C., each snapped up $25 million grants for new lines.
West Sacramento and Los Angeles applied in this summer's round of funding but were both shut out. Those and other planned systems in California are estimated to cost roughly $30 million per mile to build, plus several million per year to operate.
Seal attributes this competition to the fact that the grants have arrived a moment when there is massive "pent-up demand." "There were 10-20 streetcar projects across the country sitting there waiting for this (funding) change to happen," said Seal.
Those projects can still appliy for grants from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) federal stimulus program; TIGER II grants are available through Septembers 2012.
"There seems to be continued interest at the federal and state level to continue funding these systems," said Lowenthal, who said that her city of Long Beach will apply for federal funds. "That being said, there may be changes to funding priorities as a result of the November 2 election."
No matter what, it's likely that new trolleys will be clanging modestly down California streets long before they get out-raced by bullet trains.
Contacts & Resources:
Julie Gustafson, Portland Streetcar Community Relations Representative, http://www.portlandstreetcar.org/ 503-823-2900
Daniel Jacobson, The Oakland Streetcar Plan, http://www.oaklandstreetcarplan.com
Suja Lowenthal, Long Beach City Council Member, 562.570.6684
Gloria Ohland, Author, Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century
Maureen Pascoe, West Sacramento Capital Improvement Manager, (916) 617-4535
Lisa Schweitzer, Associate Professor, USC School of Policy, Planning, & Development, (213) 740-3866
Zach Seal, Broadway Streetcar Project Manager, City of Oakland;
Streetcar Proposals & Studies:
Los Angeles: www.lastreetcar.org/
Sacramento/West Sacramento: www.riverfrontstreetcar.com/