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Streetcars Play an Expanding Role in Downtown Revivals

New lines have opened, or are in development, in 21 cities across the country.

New apartments, shops and the headquarters for First Orion, a phone management software company, will all be sprouting up in North Little Rock, Ark. This city of over 62,300 just across the Arkansas River from downtown Little Rock is seeing the sort of urban regeneration cities across the country have been experiencing, thanks in large part to its streetcar line.
Residents — both young and old — are opting for downtown living, while developers are rehabbing older buildings and getting approval to build new mixed-use developments because cities are making big bets on streetcars for downtown transit. New lines have opened, or are in development, in 21 cities across the country, according to the Community Streetcar Coalition.
The 60,000-square-foot First Orion office space will be but blocks from one of the stops of METRO Streetcar’s Blue Line, which connects North Little Rock to downtown Little Rock. The 3.4-mile line operates three historic replica streetcars. The $30 million system, operated by Rock Region METRO, opened in 2004 and expanded in 2007.
The Little Rock streetcar system follows the pattern of similar transit projects across the country that have reimagined the trolley — a relic of pre-WWII transit — as today’s answer for jump-starting downtown revitalization, linking landmarks and, oh yeah, providing transit.
“I think anyone who has lived or worked in Little Rock and North Little Rock over the last 20 years would agree that investments such as the METRO Streetcar have improved the ambiance of the downtown area and its appeal to business owners and tourists,” said Becca Green, director of public engagement with Rock Region METRO.
If there’s a “uniting thread” seen in many cities undertaking a streetcar project, it’s their ability “to organize economic development,” said Jeff Boothe, executive director of the Community Streetcar Coalition and president of Boothe Transit Consulting.
Streetcars also create more activity in downtowns, said Boothe. And aside from being an “organizing investment,” streetcars can also be a “connecting investment,” with rail links to arenas, restaurants, parking facilities and more.
“Look at Oklahoma City, for example. They connect to their baseball stadium, the convention center and the basketball arena,” Boothe pointed out. The $131 million 4.6-mile system, with 22 stops, is set to open this year. It was funded by a voter-approved 1-cent sales tax. 
“The current projects are generally more considered as an economic engine, as well,” said Carl Jackson, assistant director of streetcar operations for Sun Metro in El Paso, Texas. The 4.8-mile system there is expected to begin rolling out in November.
“And with that, they’re more of an urban circulator. In a lot of cases you’ll see a loop. And you won’t necessarily see a couplet, where the tracks are on a single street, going north and south, or east and west,” Jackson explained.
Perhaps one of the splashiest recent streetcar success stories comes from Kansas City, Mo., where the KC Streetcar is soon set to mark its two-year anniversary. The $100 million project operates on a 2.2-mile route through the spine of downtown running from the River Market neighborhood on the north side to Union Station at the south terminus. Since 2012, downtown Kansas City has seen more than $1.7 billion in investment, according to an analysis by the Kansas City Star.

The system has seen ridership increase 3.3 percent from May 2016 to May 2017, according to KC Streetcar statistics. Meanwhile, ridership on the city’s bus system declined 4.4 percent in 2017, according to American Public Transportation Association statistics. (It should be noted that while the streetcar is free to ride, the bus system charges $1.50 per ride.) Funding for the streetcar comes from added sales and property tax assessments within a transportation development district, as well as a supplement added to surface pay parking lots. Plans are currently underway to extend the line south to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Streetcar systems do not always mesh with the overall mission and strategy of transit agencies. For this reason, the projects are sometimes led by separate organizations, as is the case in Kansas City, Detroit, Cincinnati and other locations, compounding the argument that these transit systems serve other goals, sometimes separate from transit.
“I’ve seen it go a number of ways. It depends on how adept the host agency is,” said Jackson, reflecting on the governing structure of streetcar systems. 
“Sometimes they’re by a separate authority. Sometimes they’re by a city government. Sometimes they are part of the transit agency. And then sometimes they’ll start one way and then eventually move over,” said Art Guzzetti, vice president of policy at the American Public Transportation Association. As an example, Guzzetti referred to the streetcar in Atlanta, which began independently and is now part of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). 
In Kansas City “the bus agency did not want to be involved in that (streetcar program),” said Jackson. “So what Kansas City did was they set up a streetcar operating authority. And with that, the authority now oversees the operation” via an operations and maintenance contract, which in Kansas City is run by Herzog Transit . “So it varies,” he added.
While streetcars run on rails, by definition they operate on city streets and not in their own right-of-way, which means they can fall prey to traffic congestion. In Little Rock the streetcar is sometimes held up by poorly parked cars blocking the streetcar’s path, according to Green.
“If there are vehicles parked within the streetcar operating space, the streetcar cannot move down the lane, prompting a search for the vehicle owner that could end in a towing job for the parked car,” she said.
Given those operational realities, to say nothing of the cost of a streetcar system, wouldn’t it make more sense to launch a bus line instead? Not necessarily, say transit experts.
“We get this debate where it’s ‘either or,’” said Boothe. “And what I like to tell people, ‘let the corridor define the mode.’ Let’s look at what we’re hoping to accomplish.”
Between 2000 and 2012, downtown Little Rock saw significant development and redevelopment, with more than 950 new residential units and nearly $816.5 million in capital investment, said Green, citing an economic impact study of the area. To be clear, a number of factors, such as the opening of the Clinton Presidential Center, influenced this uptick in interest in downtown. However, downtown promoters and others credit the streetcar with adding to the synergy propelling the district.
“Visitors to Arkansas love the streetcar, and our state parks and tourism department regularly requests that brochures for the streetcar be sent to department-operated welcome centers as far away as two or three hours from the Little Rock area,” said Green.
“With more residential units and businesses opening downtown in the near future, it’s possible that the METRO Streetcar system could eventually gain more riders looking to commute a short distance between homes and work sites. For now, the streetcar system leans more toward the purpose of an economic development tool,” she added.
Real-estate developers tend to prefer streetcar lines over buses, in part because streetcars tend to be more desirable among riders, but also, a streetcar line cannot be easily rerouted like a bus line.
“It’s literally chiseled in stone, so to speak,” said Jackson. “Because now, the developer can say, ‘it’s on the streetcar (line).’ Well, everybody knows that’s not going anywhere. So at that point it becomes a major, major selling attraction,” he said. “Five years after the Portland streetcar opened, we started to see a lot of development — condos being built, etc. — and property values just went through the roof.”
And then of course, for many, a streetcar is just cooler than a bus.
“The takeaway, essentially, would be the fact of the attraction of riding a train … So there’s a level of fascination in it. That’s one. And number two, it’s a much quieter, smoother ride,” said Jackson.
The rise in streetcars comes at a time when the most prevalent form of public transportation faces a major challenge. From 2000 to 2017, bus ridership in the United States declined nearly 16 percent, according to the American Public Transportation Association. It’s unclear whether streetcars will revitalize public transportation overall, but a growing number of cities believe they are worth the investment.
The interest in streetcars “goes along with, I think, the ‘rebirth of the city,’” said Guzzetti.
“It’s accelerating more and more. The cities have excitement. The younger generations like the excitement of the cities. That’s why they’re flocking there. And the streetcars are part of that,” he added. “They’re part of that vitality. They’re right in front of you, right there, not underground or elsewhere … They’re stopping right in front of the activity centers, right in front of the restaurants, right in front of the town squares.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.