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Streetcar Revival

Why more than 40 U.S. cities are revisiting trolleys to provide clean, convenient public transit

That’s exactly what the Nileses do. They live just a block from the nearest stop on their line, and routinely hop a streetcar to a favorite restaurant or to waterfront parks along the Willamette River. Sometimes they venture farther on foot, walking from home to the downtown shopping district, and then, loaded down with bags, catch the streetcar back. Travel within Central City, where they live, is free.

The convenience that streetcars offer is reflected in the large number of riders who use walkers, says Rick Gustafson, CEO of Portland Streetcar Inc., which operates the city’s line. That means the line also conveniently accommodates strollers, wheelchairs and bikes. With Portland’s streetcars, “it’s so easy because you enter right at curb height,” Gustafson says.

Federal Support

Building on its streetcar success, Portland broke ground last summer for a 3.3-mile extension. The city funded the original $103.2 million line in part with a hike in the city parking garage fee and new property taxes created by surrounding development. Additional money came from city and state government as well as public land sales.

Times are changing. Federal money will account for half the estimated $147 million cost of Portland’s extension. For decades, federal funding encouraged construction of increasingly distant developments and highways to reach and connect them. Even federal funds designated for public transit favored projects that moved commuters to and from jobs in urban centers.

Now the Obama administration wants to support so-called urban circulators, public transportation projects that help people get around within a community. Last spring such projects, if shovel-ready, were eligible for money from the federal stimulus package. Last December the administration announced $280 million for urban circulator projects, with an emphasis on streetcars. Announced in February, a new round of federal grants totaling $1.5 billion will help out several streetcar projects.

Streetcars “fit in very well with the concept of livable communities,” U.S. Trans­portation Secretary Ray LaHood told the AARP Bulletin last fall. “You’ll see neigh­borhoods really embrace the idea.”

Streetcar advocates like Jim Graebner of the American Public Transportation Association are encouraged. “The return of the streetcar began with the success in Portland. Now, it’s almost like there are new projects every day,” Graebner says. “Thanks to the federal funding, 2010 may finally be the year of the streetcar.”

Christie Findlay lives in Accokeek, Md.

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