The Return of the Streetcar

HYPERLOCAL

The 2016 grand opening of the KC Streetcar in downtown Kansas City, Mo., was a well-earned moment of celebration for the city’s mayor, Sly James, and the Kansas City Streetcar Authority.

Despite the occasional construction disruption and a budget that tipped over $100 million, the 2.2-mile streetcar starter line, which travels from River Market to Union Station, was hailed by Mayor James as “one of the most significant milestones in this city in generations.”

It was also the first streetcar to travel on Kansas City’s streets since 1957, and its success was nearly instantaneous: The KC Streetcar recorded its one millionth ride last October after just five months of service.

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The KC Streetcar’s 2.2-mile starter line travels from River Market to Union Station in Kansas City, Mo.

More cities are developing their own streetcar systems in hopes of decreasing traffic congestion and increasing economic activity in key downtown neighborhoods.

By May 2017, one year after it opened, the KC Streetcar reached 2 million rides. With this milestone came an economic boom in downtown Kansas City, which included $2 billion in economic development within the boundaries of the KC Streetcar Transportation Development District (TDD). Sales tax receipts in the TDD have also grown by 58 percent since 2014, outpacing citywide growth of 16 percent for the same period, among others positive outcomes.

“Fixed rail generates economic development, and combined with the city’s investment in smart city technology, we are building a tax base that will benefit residents citywide both now and in the future,” said Troy Schulte, city manager, in a statement.

The streetcar, once a mainstay of urban travel in America’s cities, became obsolete by the 1960s due to a decline in ridership, the rise of the automobile and the attendant traffic jams the latter created. Now, many mid-sized American cities like Portland, Memphis and Atlanta have created their own streetcar systems to transport commuters through busy areas. And more cities—like Sacramento, Charlotte and St. Louis—are developing their own streetcar systems in hopes of decreasing traffic congestion and increasing economic activity in key downtown neighborhoods.

A Trolley Grows in St. Louis

Between 2009 to 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transportation Administration awarded over $550 million to streetcar projects throughout the country. This funding has primarily been granted through the Transportation Investment Generating Economy Recovery (TIGER) program, which provides discretionary grants to projects that will have a significant impact on a region or metropolitan area, and the Federal Transit Administration’s Urban Circulator Program. 

St. Louis, Mo., is one of the cities that received an Urban Circulator Program grant. The city is nearing completion of the Loop Trolley, a $51 million trolley that will span 2.2 miles between University City Loop and Forest Park, which the project’s developers believe will increase tourism and fuel economic development in the city. 

Whereas many of the new generation of streetcars have a more modern look and feel, the Loop Trolley features three rehabbed vintage streetcars that hail from Portland and Seattle. The two trolleys from Portland were built in the 1990s, although they were designed to look like streetcars from 1903. The streetcar from Seattle is a W-class electric trolley that was built by the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways board in the early 1920s.

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The Loop Trolley features three rehabbed vintage streetcars that hail from Portland and Seattle.

While the Loop’s debut has been delayed until November, Joe Edwards, project chairman of the Loop Trolley, says that there is high demand for alternative modes of transportation like the trolley. 

“Young people, retirees, they do want to live in livable, walkable communities and not have to pay for car insurance, tire wear, the price of the car, gas prices, and this is something all cities will start going towards more and more,” Edwards said in an interview with Fox 2 St. Louis.

The Cost of a Streetcar

The cost of developing a new streetcar service is not cheap. Edwards recently came under fire for asking the St. Louis County Council for $4 million for the project (he received $3 million) and is reportedly set to ask the council for $500,000 to help expand the trolley’s hours of operation.

The ideal city for a streetcar service is one that already has a dense population and is easily walkable.

In Cincinnati, TransDev, the operators of the Cincinnati Bell Connector streetcar service, which opened in 2016, reported a budget shortfall of $474,530 and lower-than-expected ridership numbers. TransDev is asking for a 6 percent budget increase for 2018 to $4.1 million, per the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Sacramento secured a $50 million federal grant for a four-mile rail line that would operate from downtown Sacramento to West Sacramento. The rail line, which could cost upwards of $200 million, would be the first time Sacramento had a streetcar service since the late 1940s.

The ideal city for a streetcar service is one that already has a dense population and is easily walkable, says Daniel Malouff, a Washington transportation expert, in an interview with Politico.

Budgets and requirements aside, the success of the KC Streetcar has thus far provided rare proof that the ridership is there for streetcar service in American cities.

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