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Streetcar Renaissance and Downtown Investment

The American streetcar renaissance that began 12 years ago in Portland, Oregon with the opening of its first line has brought about a revitalization of urban corridors.  This revitalization has manifested itself in substantial private investment along streetcar lines.  In Portland alone, $3.5 billion has arrived along that city's streetcar lines.  Specifically, more than 50% of downtown development has occurred within one block of the streetcar line.

Since a 2009 change in federal policy allowing the DOT to begin granting cities $25 million for urban circulator systems such as streetcars and rubber-tire trolleys, an expanding group of cities has joined the vanguard of transport-spurred urban renewal.  According to David Vozzolo of HDR Engineering, there are three things the Federal Transit Administration  (FTA)  considers to evaluate applications for its New Starts and Small Starts program, the DOT sponsored initiative for cities to build their own streetcar systems:  1) cost-effectiveness – how much travel-time is saved; 2) land-use the transit project would support and, 3) the economic development the transit project would bring about.

Detractors say the streetcars create pedestrian dangers and cost twice as much per mile to operate as busses.  Yet the operational costs have to be balanced against the return on investment.  As cities like Portland have learned, when streetcar lines are done correctly, the benefits out-weigh the costs in terms of the eventual tax revenue and social benefit increases.  Furthermore, pedestrian dangers from higher-speed bus operation along un-fixed lines (as opposed to the rail-based, fixed line operation of streetcars) result in a much higher rate of injury than streetcars do.  One wonders where these detractors base their conclusions.

To analyze the paradigm from which today's skeptics derive their anti-rail rhetoric, it is necessary to consider the history of the demise of the once-dominant urban streetcar and the rise of the automobile to the status of dominance it holds today in our infrastructure.  Streetcar lines were largely torn up in the mid-20th Century in what became known as the Great American Streetcar Scandal.  Also known as the General Motors Streetcar Scandal, this event was the dismantling of streetcars systems in 45 American cities by GM and its partners in collusion to convert streetcar lines to bus lines.  This action, of course, was to great advantage to these companies; but they were brought to court and convicted in 1949 of conspiracy to monopolize interstate commerce.  However, the damage had already been done.

It has been stated that the scandal, utilizing deception of the American public by government and big business, was a fundamental factor in the demise of urban public transit systems across the country. According to notable figures Edwin J. Quinby and Bradford C. Snell, anti-trust attorney for the U.S. Senate, the deliberate destruction of the streetcar systems was part of a larger plan to push the nation into automobile dependency.  Later, government policy and taxation favored automobile usage and resource-intensive, real-estate sprawl.  But various economic challenges and petroleum price increases, as well as urban revitalization and an increase in demand for transit-friendly town centers has resulted in a rebirth of the streetcar in American transit lexicon.

From as far back as 1980, streetcars have gained popularity in cities around the world.  Its tendency to dominate the roadway, formerly seen as a disadvantage, is now considered a merit.  In fact streetcars, unlike the ubiquitous bus mode,  become icons for the identity of cities.  They are often used by tourists, but when built in correlation to demand due to population density and interconnection with other transit modes, are economically viable.  Streetcars create a coalescence of businesses along their routes because of their inherently user-friendly and localized use-pattern.  Streetcar riders tend to travel shorter distances compared to busses partly because of the sense of enjoyment and adventure that one does not attain riding a bus along the same route.  Busses produce jerks and jolts but streetcars have a smoother, more predictable ride.

Studies have shown that streetcar lines boost property values, encourage development, cut carbon emissions, and ultimately raise tax revenue.  The U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, has said that streetcar lines run alongside many small businesses including restaurants, bookstores, doctor's offices, and clothing stores; people board and disembark there and they become real, economic corridors.  The City of Portland has calculated that 30% more people ride the streetcars than would ride busses along the same route.