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From relic to revolutionary: streetcars revitalize city transit

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More than a half-century after streetcars were abandoned and burned, at least a dozen U.S. cities are working to revive them.

The revitalization of Portland, Ore.'s Pearl District, where empty warehouses were replaced with art galleries and abandoned rail yards gave way to multi-family housing, truly began for some when a streetcar line opened there in 2001. As the streetcar shuttled passengers around the once-decrepit neighborhood, it also swept billions of dollars of investments into the revived community.

Now, the Pearl District has two private gyms and just about every type of ethnic cuisine. And in possibly the ultimate sign of neighborhood prosperity, a dog park is in the works. "It totally transformed far beyond anything we could have imagined," said Rick Gustafson, executive director and chief operating officer of Portland Streetcar. "The streetcar was part of a whole effort to make this kind of development occur."

By the 1950s, streetcars were in trouble. In their heyday, these electrified passenger rails chugged along the streets of just about every American community with more than 5,000 residents.

But after World War II, when streetcars were flagging from auto industry competition, municipalities and transportation authorities were convinced to make the switch to buses. Contracts were signed. Rails were paved over or torn out and sold for scrap. And streetcars dropped off their last passengers, traveled to the end of the line and were burned. "The [auto] companies did not want the competition of the streetcars with their buses," said Patrick Condon, a professor at the University of British Columbia and author of Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities.

There were some exceptions. Remnants of original streetcar systems are still running in parts of Philadelphia and Boston. And, despite a close call with the city's new mayor, Toronto maintains the region's largest original streetcar system. But more than a half-century after most streetcars were abandoned and burned, at least a dozen U.S. cities are working to revive these systems from the ashes. In addition to Portland, Atlanta is building a downtown streetcar line that, when service begins next year, will feature a Siemens S70 vehicle powered by a single overhead trolley wire. And in Los Angeles, a city defined by its car culture, residents are beginning to imagine what Broadway would look like with streetcar tracks.

Since streetcars were mostly overrun by subsidies for automobiles and airplanes, it's taken decades of car culture consequences -- congestion, oil dependence, environmental costs -- to bring them back into fashion. "We created an enormous dependence upon airlines and cars," Gustafson said. "Now we understand that transit is a very fundamental component of our city's vitality. It's almost like a utility. You need it."

But while other advanced countries largely maintained and updated their rail systems, the United States was left on the hook for billions of dollars in rebuilds. "We've destroyed all the infrastructure we'd built," Gustafson said. "We have nothing. Almost nothing."

A clean alternative to cars

As American cities started shelling out big bucks to revitalize their urban corridors, streetcars -- also known as trams or trolleys -- became an obvious transit option for connecting those populated downtown locales. Unlike light rails, which often transport passengers between suburbs and cities, streetcars are more like intercity circulators specializing in shorter trips.

Some transit experts argued that more bus routes would be a better, lower-cost alternative to the streetcar. But buses are hardly the catalyst that major property owners and developers want when it comes to investing to revitalize a community, Gustafson said. "They wanted a demonstration of commitment by the city to the area. They wanted the permanence of rails," he said. "Creating a streetcar was part of an emphasis on making mixed-use work."

In several cities, the streetcar has been living up to its end of the bargain, Condon said. "It changes the quality of a neighborhood so dramatically in a beneficial way," he said, "that the intangible benefits of the introduction of these systems is quite enormous." The construction of a streetcar line, with the permanence of its rails, Condon said, has spurred growth in housing and mixed-use buildings and shifted some city dwellers' dependence on cars to transit, biking and walking.

What's more, streetcars can protect the environment. "If you have clean electrical energy sources and feed them into the tram system," Condon said, "it is greenhouse gas zero." That combination of smart urban development and eco-friendly transit, he said, means more sustainable cities by 2050. "The real benefit of thinking about trams is not the vehicle itself," Condon said, "but rather how the whole city works and how you move from place to place in a way that's elegant, comfortable and greenhouse gas zero."

Building the future

Portland has proven a positive test case, Condon said, on how a streetcar system can improve and protect an urban area. Since 2001, Gustafson said, more than $4 billion in investment has come to the area, including 10,000 new housing units. "We turned it around and made it the hottest growth area in the region, rather than vacant land," he said, adding that developers wouldn't have made such an investment without the streetcar. In renewing an industrial wasteland into a liveable urban community, Gustafson said, planning by developers and the city focused on amenities including parks, underground parking and affordable housing.

City travelers reduce road congestion and avoid the hassle of finding parking, Gustafson said, when they choose the streetcar over the car for a short midday trip. In Portland, peak streetcar ridership is between 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., he said, with passengers popping out of the office for lunch or heading to happy hour with colleagues.

In Los Angeles, where a four-mile streetcar system is in development, officials expect commuters and tourists alike to ride the rails. The downtown route would overlap with subway and light rail stops and connect the city's financial and commercial districts, including such sites as the Staples Center and Walt Disney Concert Hall. "It's for everybody," said Shiraz Tangri, general counsel for the non-profit group Los Angeles Streetcar.

United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works, was the first U.S. company to manufacture a modern streetcar. Unlike their 20th-century predecessors, modern streetcars are faster, more spacious, cheaper to maintain, Americans with Disabilities Act compliant and outfitted with regenerative brakes and LED lights. Using a model developed by the company Skoda in the Czech Republic, United Streetcar designed an "Americanized" version with roof fixtures and hinge plate headlights, said president Chandra Brown.

"The Czechs have old-world craftsmanship and a lot more people working on it," Brown said. "We're more about automation ... we had to change the design substantially to make it a better, easier, more cost-effective and higher-quality way of building." Since United Streetcar's 2005 launch, the company has been contracted to supply streetcars for Portland, Tucson and Washington, D.C.

It can take more than a year to build a city's first streetcar, Brown said, because of the long lead-time on certain items. "Because our market is so much smaller [in the U.S.], it's harder to find a good supply chain," she said. "We're committed to using as much local products and services as we can, but there are items that aren't even made in the United States."

Still, more than 200 U.S. companies are supplying United Streetcar, many of them small businesses. "We're excited about the ripple effect on U.S. manufacturing," Brown said. Internationally, other companies designing streetcars include Vossloh in Germany and Alstom in France.

Just as finding the parts for a U.S. streetcar can be difficult, it's not always easy for cities to turn the streetcar concept into reality. Though a streetcar system costs only about 10 percent of the price of a subway line, raising the funds is difficult. Government grants, such as TIGER funds awarded for streetcars in cities including Dallas, New Orleans and Tucson, are competitive. The city of Portland self-financed its initial streetcar line, priced at about $25 million per mile, with the help of property owners and bonds backed by parking revenue from city garages, Gustafson said. In contrast, the streetcar's expansion, opening Sept. 22, received half of its funding from federal sources.

Los Angeles continues to grapple with financing. Residents living within three pedestrian-friendly blocks of the proposed streetcar line will vote this fall on whether to approve a tax that would pay for about half of the construction costs. A taxpayer's individual burden would depend on his proximity to the streetcar line, Tangri said, with the majority of area condominium owners set to pay less than $100 a year.

A former downtown Los Angeles resident, Tangri argued the costs are reasonable considering the potential return on investment: new jobs, new businesses and more tourists. If the measure passes, he said, the private sector commitment would be used to leverage federal funding for other project costs. The public sector would handle streetcar operations. "It's a collective investment," Tangri said, "something much bigger than any individual developer could do."

Photo: Paul Sableman/Flickr

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Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure