Tuesday, August 16, 2011

On Streetcars

Given the current political turbulence over streetcar projects in Northern Virginia, Washington, DC, and Cincinnati, Ohio, I think it's time for a discussion surrounding the nature of these projects, what they are intended to do, what the rational for supporting them is, and how accurate the arguments against them are. This article will also look at several features of each individual project.

Streetcar systems are one of the best ways of promoting urban investment, they allow quick and convenient access around a city and to city districts, allowing people to access more area than they would be able to access by foot or car. This shows that a community is willing to make long term investments and intends to promote downtown growth over suburban growth into the future. Developers see this as a green light to build and renovate. Constructing mixed use development in conjunction with affordable and mixed income housing. Streetcar construction also promotes an improved street scape, including rebuilt sidewalks, roads, and vegetation.  

However, this investment does result in a redirection of resources from the suburbs to the city, but these resources are put to good use, and do not require the quality of public services provided to suburban residents to decrease. Dense urban living is more efficient than suburban living, and requires less resources to maintain. In addition to this, the investment in urban areas will serve as an impetus for people to move to them, decreasing suburban sprawl.

Streetcar systems are superior to buses for several reasons, such as lack of pollution, a smoother ride, a lack of social stigmas, visible routes, longer vehicle lifespans, and inclusion on local non-transit maps.

This being said, let's examine a few systems

Washington, DC: The Washington system is unique in that it is a city wide network being planned and built in phases, with the first segment currently scheduled to open in 2013 along H Street. However, the construction and planning has been besieged with mismanagement from the beginning. The concept originated as a light rail line in Anacostia, which was then became a streetcar route. The H Street line and the Anacostia line were under construction simutaneously until 2009, when the DC Department of Transportation ordered construction hated on the Anacostia line and incorporated it into another phase of the project.

The goal of the Washington, DC project is to connect the districts and neighborhoods within the city, as opposed to the Metro, which was designed to get commuters into and out of the city. It will also serve as an impetus to rebuild many decayed parts of the city, as some segments of the streetcar project (such as the H Street line) are part of complete rebuilds of the streets and street spaces, which also includes new development and affordable housing.

The initial H Street line will then be extended up K Street and out Benning Road, forming the first in a series of lines crossing the district.

The majority of the lines will terminate at Metrorail stations, allowing residents of DC neighborhoods access to the greater metro area without necessitating a car. It will also run on battery power in the core downtown, to comply with a 19th century law prohibiting overhead electrical wires downtown.

Northern Virginia/Columbia Pike Streetcar: This is an initiative sponsored by the Columbia Pike Transit Initiative with the intent of turning Columbia Pike into a “main street” with urban areas surrounding it. The line is intended to run from Northern Virginia Community College to just past the Pentagon Metrorail Station, however there are no current plans for it to bridge the Potomac River and connect with the Washington DC system. Such a connection would be advantageous because it would eliminate the need for a transfer to Metrorail in order to access Washington DC. However, the future of this project is uncertain, as the Virginia General Assembly ruled that the agency set up to develop it cannot collect the money necessary to build it.

When constructed, this line will serve as a development anchor for the area, promoting dense development and urban growth patterns to counteract sprawl.

Cincinnati, Ohio: The proposed system in Cincinnati, Ohio is modeled after the successful system in Portland, Oregon. This system is planned to connect downtown, Over-the-Rhine, and various neighborhoods in proximity to the University of Cincinnati. A feasibility study conducted on the proposed route in 2007 found that the city of Cincinnati would receive close to two billion dollars in benefits from the streetcar, including $34 million in tax revenue, $17 million in business activity, between $54 million and $193 million in redevelopment activity, and gain anywhere from 1,200 to 3,400 residencies.

Several extensions are also proposed to the initial line, including Clifton, the Cincinnati Zoo, and Union Terminal. The line is currently expected to cost $102 million, with full extensions to Clifton, the zoo and the university coming in at $185 million.

In 2009, a measure was put on the ballot by the right wing group the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) to kill the project, this measure targeted not only the streetcar but also proposed high speed rail from Cincinnati to Columbus to Cleveland as well as a tourist train at the Cincinnati Zoo. The measure failed 56% to 44%.

However, another measure by the same group is in the works and was recently approved to be added to the November ballot. This measure would prohibit any money regardless of funding from being spent on any rail project in the Cincinnati area for the next decade.

It is imperative that this measure be defeated soundly. Failing to do so will do nothing less than grant an economic death sentence to the city of Cincinnati and its metro area. COAST apparently wants to apply its acronym to the economy of Cincinnati, in which case it it will not grow, and coast until it stops completely.

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