Ten Reasons to Love a Streetcar, Pt. 2

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The second part of Ten Reasons to love a Streetcar from the Austin Chronicle.

6) Streetcars attract tourists, conventioneers, and visiting grandchildren as fun “transportainment.” A city’s visitors, tourists, and convention attendees can be counted upon to deliver a steady base of riders – provided that the streetcar conveniently takes them where they want and need to go. Neighborhoods with streetcars – and cool places to see or visit – typically become tourist destinations. Cities with streetcars linked to their convention centers and major tourist destinations have become more successful at attracting major convention business. That yields more “bed tax” and rental-car and parking-fee dollars – which can in turn be used to fund the streetcar system.

7) Where streetcars go, private development follows. Quality development becomes more economically feasible when it requires less parking. (In Portland, new streetcar-area housing averaged just 1 to 1.3 parking spaces per unit.) With structured parking in Austin costing up to $25,000 a space, a developer can save tens of thousands on parking for projects near transit. This can offer an “in lieu” revenue stream to help fund the streetcar system. Developers are able to build higher-quality and better-designed projects or to fund community benefits like affordable housing and parks.

8 ) By generating new value and revenues, a streetcar system can pay for itself. The built-in development boon from streetcars makes a new system an excellent public and private investment. The “streetcar effect” predictably raises property values for three blocks on either side of the line, immediately for existing structures, dramatically for new high-rise development. If properly captured by the public sector, the increased property-tax yield (in Austin, to the city, county, and Austin Independent School District) can sustain investments in the streetcar system.

Streetcars also tend to boost retail and restaurant sales – and, thus, sales-tax revenues. Business improves because more customers are walking down the street and because new residents flock to the transit-oriented development.

In most cities, funding comes through public entities from the business sector – often through special tax assessments or tax-increment financing on surrounding business-improvement districts.

9) Streetcars are much less expensive than light-rail. Streetcar systems can be started up for less than $10 million per track mile; typical costs are $10 million to $15 million per mile, rising up to $25 million per mile for systems with new, modern trains. By contrast, light-rail systems run $30 million to $50 million, even up to $75 million, per mile. At roughly one-third the cost of comparable light-rail, streetcar systems have about 65% the rider capacity.

They’re also fast and simple to build, impacting traffic and neighborhood on each block for just a couple of weeks as they go in. The lines fit easily into existing neighborhoods and streetscapes, with minimal disruption. They don’t require the expensive infrastructure – like passenger stations and parking garages – needed for regional rail.

Streetcar systems are also a cost-effective investment over decades. Cars last at least 30 to 50 years and can be refurbished for another 50 years of service. Buses, by contrast, wear out after eight to 12 years. Plus, tracks don’t require the constant maintenance and expansion of roads.

10) Streetcars can be historic and charming – or sleek and modern. Vintage streetcars have been retooled and put back in service in Seattle; Memphis, Tenn.; and San Francisco. New replicas of vintage trolleys were ordered up for Tampa and Little Rock. Old systems with vintage cars still survive in New Orleans, San Francisco, Toronto, and Philadelphia. Systems using modern streetcars – which Cap Metro has favored for Austin – operate in Portland and Tacoma, Wash., and are planned for Atlanta, Miami, and Washington, D.C.

Modern vehicles are faster, quieter, larger, carry more riders, are more comfortable, and don’t have to stop as long. But they’re also far more expensive ($800,000 vs. $80,000) and less historically charming as “transportainment.” San Francisco has acquired some 90 vintage streetcars from around the world to gradually refurbish for service; their colorful variety is part of the fun. Replica cars (which can be air-conditioned) provide a middle ground of practicality and charm. end story

One thought on “Ten Reasons to Love a Streetcar, Pt. 2

    Judy Moyer said:
    April 21, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Top reason to not like “streetcars” over light rail….snow removal and safety-street repairs after the salt degradation. Cincinnati has enough trouble getting potholes repaired now without having the major downtown/uptown artery deterioring each winter with the street car tracks. Unless it does not run within the motorists street path…streetcars may be hazardous. Light rail usually runs along or in middle of streets and will not create as much a problem.

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