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Streetcars Play an Expanding Role in Downtown Revivals

Jeffrey Boothe, executive director of the Community Streetcar Coalition and Managing Principal at InfraStrategies LLC joins the conversation about the role Streetcars play in downtown revitalizations and economic growth.

Excerpted from Government Technology | May 9th, 2018

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.

Full Story at Government Technology


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