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Some see streetcars in Ann Arbor's future

Some see streetcars in Ann Arbor's future

Ann Arbor transportation manager Eli Cooper said the city has been considering bringing streetcars here. And Ann Arbor isn't the only city in Michigan thinking about it - Grand Rapids also is looking into the possibility.

By Tom Gantert

(Published in The Ann Arbor News on Saturday, February 23, 2008.)

Streetcars are ingrained into the cool, urban images of such cites as Portland, Seattle and New Orleans.

Those who support the romantic notion of bringing streetcars to Ann Arbor envision a town like San Francisco, where the trams have run on famed Market Street for nearly 150 years.

"It gives a much hipper, urban feel to the city," said City Council Member Chris Easthope.

Ann Arbor officials are considering paying a consultant to study whether a streetcar system could work here, and the Ann Arbor Transportation Authority board voted Wednesday to participate in such a study.

But the streetcar romance is clouded by a stark reality: Most cost estimates predict the system would be $50 million or more.

Ann Arbor transportation manager Eli Cooper said the city has been considering bringing streetcars here. And Ann Arbor isn't the only city in Michigan thinking about it - Grand Rapids also is looking into the possibility.

If city leaders buy into it, Cooper said streetcars could be a reality in five to eight years.

One vision of a streetcar system would have smaller shuttle buses that go into neighborhoods to transport people to four major streetcar routes, Cooper said. The rail-based streetcars would bring people in from four major corridors - Plymouth Road, Washtenaw Avenue, State Street and Jackson Road.

Sidebar: Paying the fare

Here's a look at how once city paid for its streetcar system. Portland, Ore., became the first city in North American to use modern streetcars when they started running in 2001.

Capital Budget: $56.9 million

Funding sources:

  • City parking bonds: $28.6 million
  • Local improvement district: $9.6 million
  • Tax increment financing: $7.5 million
  • Federal transportation funds: $5.0 million
  • City parking fund: $2.0 million
  • City general fund: $1.8 million
  • City transportation fund: $1.7 million
  • U.S. HUD grant: $500,000
  • Miscellaneous: $200,000

Cooper estimates travel time from the outskirts of town to the downtown core would be cut in half - to 20 minutes or less.

Another appeal of streetcars is the number of passengers they can hold. Most streetcars carry 80 to 100 people, with some multi-car trolleys able to handle 200 passengers. Buses generally carry 50 riders.

And with a dedicated traffic lane, streetcars could be the only thing moving at times during home University of Michigan football games. Experts agree streetcars couldn't handle 100,000-plus fans leaving a game, but they would be key part of transportation planning for special events.

As city leaders consider the possibility of streetcars, they'll have plenty of questions to answer.

Will there be enough demand for ridership? How would the system be funded? And could Ann Arbor match the success that much bigger cites are enjoying with trams?

Cooper said he believes the need is there based on the growing number of workers in the city. He pointed to a Southeast Michigan Council of Governments projection showing the number of workers here would increase from 124,378 in 2000 to 132,305 in 2030 - a jump of about 8,000. Cooper said the city has already nearly reached that estimate this year.

Mayor John Hieftje said the town's 40,000 students, many without cars, would be essential to the success of a streetcar system in Ann Arbor.

Bigger cities have seen streetcars spur development and attract a growing number of riders.

A streetcar system got up and running in Seattle on Dec. 12. In the first six-plus weeks, streetcars have exceeded 100,000 riders, more than doubling the projection of 41,000 for the first 43 days.

"What we've found with streetcars, people who might not use other public transportation will ride on streetcars," said Rick Sheridan, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation. "It's an interesting phenomenon."

In Portland, there's an eight-mile continuous loop for streetcars that began in July 2001 as the first modern streetcar system in North America. Ridership has increased from 3,700 a day to 11,000 a day last year.

Advocates say increased ridership is only one benefit to streetcars.

In Portland, a study showed more than $2.28 billion has been invested within two blocks of its streetcar system since 1997. That included more than 7,200 new housing units and 4.6 million square feet of office, retail and hotel construction. Developers also are pitching projects with significantly lower parking ratios than anywhere else in the region, the study found.

In Tampa, Fla., $1.2 billion in investments have been made within two blocks of the downtown streetcar system since it started in October 2002, said Ed Crawford, chief of government affairs for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

But those cities - which have populations up to and more than five times the size of Ann Arbor - have deeper pockets.

And streetcars don't come cheaply.

  • In Portland, the capital costs for 2.4 miles of track was $57 million in 2001.
  • In Tampa, the capital costs for 2.4 miles of track was $55 million in 2002.
  • In Seattle, 2.6 miles of track was $51 million in 2004.

The annual operating budgets for streetcars can be as high as $5 million.

Those cities found differing ways to pay for it.

Seattle didn't use any general fund dollars for the startup costs, and private investors contributed $25.7 million, Sheridan said. In Portland, $28.6 million of the initial costs were covered by city parking bonds, and the city contributed $1.7 million from its general fund.

Ann Arbor wouldn't go it alone, city officials say.

"The city wouldn't look to do it on its own," said Ann Arbor Chief Financial Officer Tom Crawford. "The city would look for partners to do something like this. We would look at federal, state and local."