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A streetcar named progress

As populations shift from suburbs to city centers, the once-obsolete rail lines are making a comeback.

September 16, 2007|Joseph B. Frazier | Associated Press Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. -- In simpler days of Main Streets and bowler hats, a streetcar system meant a town had "arrived."

But the clatter of the nickel in the farebox, the motorman's double clang of the bell and the slow lurch down the track faded quickly after World War II.

In the 1920s, there were about 1,200 electric lines operating nationwide, providing some 15 billion rides a year. By the 1970s, the number of cities with real streetcar systems was down to about five.

But they are making a comeback in several American cities, and more have plans in the wings, projects largely development-driven to revitalize sagging urban areas, and to serve a population segment, often baby boomers, choosing to move back to cities and to simplify their lives when they do.

Reasons for the demise vary but one factor was National City Lines, formed by General Motors, Standard Oil of California, Phillips Petroleum and Firestone tires. It bought up more than 100 lines in the 1930s and 1940s in many of the larger cities and dismantled them.

Buses and increasingly available automobiles took over. All use gas, oil and tires. Conspiracy theories abound.

The streetcar renaissance stems from planners who see them not only as people-movers but as engines of urban development, encouraging a gradual shift back to cities by people, often older, who enjoy the convenience, miss interaction absent in the suburbs and want to rely less on cars.

Most newer lines are less than five miles long, but transit officials in cities such as Portland, Ore.; Little Rock, Ark.; Tampa, Fla.; Kenosha, Wis.; Tacoma, Wash., and elsewhere say they are making a difference.

Charles Hales, senior vice president of the engineering firm HDR, which works on many streetcar projects, says as many as 60 American cities are in some stage of streetcar planning or development.

In the summer of 2000, Portland and Kenosha became the first cities to bring back streetcar lines after having scrapped them. Others are lined up do to so, but the planning, feasibility studies and financial hurdles can take years.

Some cities are using refurbished old-style oak-and-iron rattlers, "heritage lines," while others such as Portland have opted for sleek, Czech-made cars that can carry more than 100 passengers.

Portland ridership, initially projected to be 3,500 a day, now tops 9,800 and is growing about 17% a year. The city is putting together about $75 million to match federal money to expand the lines.

The new lines no longer are the commuter systems they once were. They are designed to lure people back into cities, keep them there, and perk up former industrial sites and similarly decaying, underused and under-taxed areas.

Portland has seen about $2.5 billion in new construction, including 7,248 new housing units within three blocks of the line since the plan was announced in 1997. In Little Rock, the figure is between $300 million and $400 million.

"It is not the only reason [for the construction] but most developers admit the streetcar is one of the reasons," said Keith Jones, who helped design the system there. "The line defines areas where things in the city are happening."

It extends to North Little Rock, which was suffering downtown decay. "It is having a higher impact there than in Little Rock, where things were happening anyway," he said.

"We got 80% federal funding, something that's virtually impossible to do now with the federal government generally limiting funding to 50%," he said.

The 2.5-mile-line has carried about 400,000 passengers, beyond projections, since it opened in late 2004. An extension is planned to the Clinton Library.

Portland's initial phase was built largely with increased parking revenue, parking revenue bonds and taxes from a local improvement district along the route. Cities look to increased fare revenue to offset operating costs, which tend to be low. Some sell sponsorship of cars and streetcar stops to offset costs.

"Developers see streetcars as an indication of permanence when they make investments," said Len Brandrup, director of transportation in Kenosha, outside Chicago. That's not the case with buses, he said. He said the last century had seen an "unhooking" of land-use decisions and transportation planning.

"Portland is ahead of the country in trying to re-hook them," he said, reducing auto use and parking space demands.

The 1.9-mile Kenosha line connects an old brownfield area that once housed an American Motors plant, now ripe for development, with the downtown area, government offices and a metro station that serves Chicago. There and elsewhere expansion is planned.

"Energy dependence is an issue nobody really talks about and it is not being resolved at the federal level," he said. "But decisions can be made at the local level."

The nonprofit Portland Streetcar, which coordinates Portland's system, estimates ridership eliminates about 31 million vehicle-miles per year.

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