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Streetcar Revival

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

Last winter a snowstorm immobilized Portland, Ore., for two weeks. Recently diagnosed with leukemia, Ann Niles, 68, had scheduled a medical consultation, but bus service was halted and driving strongly discouraged.

What did Niles do? She rode the streetcar to her appointment.

“It turned out I didn’t have leukemia. I had something else, and needed a completely different treatment,” she says. “Because of the streetcar, I was able to proceed with the new treatment right away.”

Niles and her husband, Philip, never imagined such drama would come from living on the Portland streetcar line.

The experience was, however, an extreme example of the convenience they expected from it when they relocated from Minnesota to Oregon. They envisioned the line, opened in 2001 along the four miles between Nob Hill and Portland State University, taking them uptown to their doctors, downtown to shops and to favorite destinations closer to their home in the Pearl District, a former industrial area now bursting with art galleries and restaurants, lofts and new condos.

More to come

Portland isn’t alone. American cities are experiencing a streetcar renaissance. Portland built the nation’s first new line in the 21st century. Tampa, Fla. (2002), Tacoma, Wash. (2003), Little Rock, Ark. (2004), and Seattle (2007) soon followed suit.

Now at least 40 cities—Tucson, Ariz., and Detroit among them—have lines in the works, and the next one is scheduled to open in Washington, D.C., by 2012. Encouraged by easier access to federal funding, as many as 40 more cities—from tiny Cripple Creek, Colo., to sprawling Los Angeles—are exploring the possibility of building new lines, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Supporters say that streetcars cost less in the long run and pollute less than other forms of transportation while injecting new life into neighborhoods. Simply put, they help create communities where residents have alternatives to cars for getting around.

“Since the streetcar opened,” Ann Niles says, “the neighborhood has completely taken off. The streets are full of activity. There’s dense development, and people are out walking their dogs or going to the parks. The streetcar helped create the neighborhood we want to live in.”

Rise and fall

The history of America’s streetcars mirrors that of its cities. Trolleys, cable cars and other electric-powered cars that run on rails began looping across cities in the 1880s. During their 1920s heyday, a network of streetcars laced the nation, linking cities to each other, nearby beaches and rural areas.

But even then, urban electric rail systems and cities were losing ground to the combustion engine and suburbs. Streetcar systems, 95 percent privately owned, struggled to stay in the black. Many produced their own electricity and, finding the consumer energy market more profitable, began easing out of the mass transit business. By the 1960s, most of the country had thrown over streetcars for cars and buses, which were faster and considered to be more efficient and much more modern.

Conspiracy?

One theory alleges that competitors—car, bus and tire manufacturers and oil companies—heavily invested in streetcar companies and then deliberately killed their lines. Rebuffed in large part in a 1940s antitrust court case, the theory was re-aired in congressional hearings in the 1970s and even made its way into popular culture in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the book Fast Food Nation.

Other people insist the old streetcars themselves were to blame for their demise. Recently reviewing plans for a streetcar line in Washington, D.C., residents related memories of dirty, noisy and unreliable streetcars.

Not Portland’s streetcars today. “Ours are clean, quiet, well-maintained and safe,” Ann Niles says. “Their enormous windows allow for both daylight and observing people and architecture. At night, they’re well lit.”

Better Health

Streetcars make not only healthier communities, adocates say, but also healthier people because they walk to the stops instead of climbing into autos.

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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