It’s on the ballot in Los Angeles. Cincinnati is planning on spending $15 million on one. Atlanta and Salt Lake City have already begun construction. And the debate rages on Kansas City.
This, it appears, is the new urban rage…the 125 year-old streetcar! Back in 2009, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood pledged $280 million for urban-transit projects, and the DoT has spent more than $450 million on 12 streetcar projects over the last four years. With cities running out of ideas to fix infrastructure and retain residents, they’re hoping these century-old transporters will help.
Portland is being looked at as a city where a streetcar has helped (maybe) revive a barren downtown; the city installed a four-mile route in 2001 and now has four million riders annually, and the track is being extended in September to 7.3 miles. Streetcar proponents like to credit the downtown-meandering steel beast for the city’s resurgence, but it’s just as likely that hipster culture blossomed at the right time when rents were low and bicycles became a valid way to get around a city, helping to make Portland what it is today.
The scale of these new projects (a 3.6 mile-loop in Cincinnati, 4 miles in L.A., 2.2 miles in Kansas City) are not, unfortunately, enough to infuse the vitality that project leads anticipate. Little Rock, Arkansas, for instance, has a street car. Last year, only 112,000 people rode it, and it’s not like people are clamoring to get out to Little Rock.
Point being…a streetcar project is not enough to remake a city downtown on its own. It’s a kitsch idea that will do more to increase traffic than relieve it. If the projects are coordinated with other efforts to rebuild a city’s downtown (like making financial districts and neighborhood desirable places to live), then it could be an effective tool in shuttling people or tourists to different areas of a city.
Without that, it seems like a waste of money and time, and very similar to the Monorail episode from the Simpsons, which happened to air almost twenty years ago in 1993.
Coordinate the budget spending, city and state governments. Don’t just spend to spend.