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Trollies draw life into target areas

The desire for streetcar systems comes from the investment that follows in its tracks.

By Tim Rausch

Published in the Augusta Chronicle (Georgia) on August 24, 2008.

Before Portland, Ore., started laying down streetcar rail, the Pearl District was an abandoned railyard with boarded-up buildings. The only thing going for it in 2000 was a brewery, recalled Charlie Hales, then one of the city's commissioners.

A city worker stood at a street corner and counted the pedestrians -- three in an hour.

The run-down downtown was a similar scene in Arkansas' capital city eight years ago.

"There were a lot of empty storefronts and warehouses, along the riverfront too, which is kind of sad," said Betty Wineland, the executive director of the Central Arkansas Transit Authority. "There wasn't much happening in that area. There wasn't anybody down there because there wasn't any reason for anybody to go there."

Situated between Chicago and Milwaukee is Kenosha, Wis., which had a downtown dominated by an empty American Motors factory. Mr. Hales, now with a national development firm, described it as being akin to a bombed-out German factory in World War II.

All three cities are now poster children for what light rail streetcar development can do to rejuvenate urban areas.

When the city worker returned to the Portland street corner in 2005, there were 938 pedestrians in an hour, Mr. Hales said.

"That's the cause and effect," he said. "You bring a place to life."

Portland's Central City streetcars started running in 2001. Within five years, the European-style light rail system attracted 100 projects and $2.3 billion in investment in housing, office and retail space.

Portland is a metro area of 2 million people, but it worked similarly in the 600,000-person Little Rock, Ark., area.

River Rail has been running since 2004 and $200 million in investment has been attributed to the 2.5-mile trolley line that connects Little Rock to North Little Rock -- along with the Clinton presidential library, hotels, convention center and restaurants on the route.

"We don't do a lot of marketing for it," Ms. Wineland said. "It really does sell itself."

She said the River Rail's success prompted city leaders from Columbus, Ohio, and Birmingham, Ala., to pay a visit last year in their own investigation on instituting streetcar systems.

There are about 30 metro areas working on streetcar plans, according to Mr. Hales, who now works for HDR Inc., a Nebraska-based engineering and consulting firm that is helping 12 of those cities.

Helping Augusta in its preliminary study on whether a return of its trolley system makes sense is URS, another global engineering firm that has assisted other metro areas with similar studies.

That study is due in six months, said Margaret Woodard, the executive director of the Downtown Development Authority of Augusta, the agency that hired URS.

THE DESIRE FOR THE systems come from the investment that follows in its tracks. The 2.4 miles of streetcar line in Tampa, Fla., spurred $450 million in residential and retail development and prompted hundreds of millions more to go on the drawing board.

Kenosha, a city of only 94,000 people, opened a 1.9-mile line in 2000 that links downtown with a commuter rail station. The streetcars were part of a revitalization idea that helped generate 400 new residential units. That old 69-acre industrial site is now a Lake Michigan waterfront park.

How can an old idea be such a magnet for development?

Mr. Hales concedes that streetcars buck the conventional wisdom. Little Rock and Portland put in rail lines in a no-man's land.

"That's why it is hard for people to understand. There's nobody down here, why would you want to build a streetcar?" Mr. Hales said. "Streetcar projects aren't built to serve people that are already there. It is an entrepreneurial investment by city government, not a responsive development for demand for transit."

As Len Brandrup, Kenosha's transportation director, likes to say: Developers don't write checks for buses.

To the couple wanting a condo or the corporation thinking of locating a headquarters, rail sends a different message than a bus line.

"Steel rails in the street show a long-term commitment," Mr. Hales said. "Cities that are trying to foster real urban development find that rail transit is almost a necessity. It makes that promise of urban living more than a pretty real estate brochure."

Downtown living is attractive to retiring baby boomers and people fleeing the suburban commute to be closer to work.

The Oakland-based nonprofit group Reconnecting America predicts the number of households near light rail lines will reach 16 million by 2030. It is about 6 million now.

For all the power they seem to possess in bringing in more residential and commercial development, they aren't cheap. The industry standard is $20 million per mile for streetcar rail going in both directions.

Mr. Hales said most of the funding plans in place are a mixture of private and public money, he explained.

Ms. Wineland said Little Rock's system would not have gotten off the drawing board without federal grant funding. It is a program through the U.S. Department of Transportation called Small Starts and it only has $200 million to hand out.

Mr. Hales said it is a slow process and his firm periodically advises client cities against trying for the federal money. The Tuscon, Ariz., streetcar, for example, is still waiting for federal money after beginning its project in 2004. Seattle, on the other hand, is already running trolleys having funded its project without federal grants, he said.

THE AUGUSTA TROLLEY debate began from a PowerPoint presentation on a Thursday morning in February in the offices of Augusta's Downtown Development Authority. The presentation was the culmination of a three-month fall project by a recent Clemson University landscape architecture graduate. It was interesting enough that the DDA gave him an audience for half an hour.

Paul King, a DDA board member and downtown property manager, said he's been fascinated by streetcars for years, but kept his ideas on the back burner until the right time.

When the presentation came, it was time to talk. But he's never said it would work nor advocated that the city should put one in.

"I've never heard anyone say we must build this project. We have only said it is a good idea to investigate. That's all," Mr. King said.

The idea was shuffled to one of the DDA's committees for further study. In June, the organization hired a Charlotte, N.C., firm to look into it and diverted $40,000 in local option sales tax money to pay for it.

Mr. King said he expects the URS study to be complete on the upside and downside of a light rail system.

"We're not looking for fluff, for yes men ... We want an analysis of this kind of system for downtown Augusta. Does it make sense financially? Does it make sense at this time?" Mr. King said.

"I think it is premature."

Downtown Augusta has been slowly redeveloping from its blighted past, a late 1970s evacuation of retail to the suburban shopping malls.

To draw additional commerce, downtown developers point to a need for more "heads and beds" -- residents and hotel rooms for tourists.

There are some redevelopment ideas that have yet to take shape, such as the convention center and historical-area revitalization projects, and others clouded with uncertainty -- condominiums, hotels and a new minor-league baseball stadium.

With dozens of cities racing to a strategy that could match the success of Tampa and Portland, it is a strategy that hasn't worked everywhere it has been tried. There are city systems in California that aren't performing well.

Light rail systems didn't work in Buffalo or Cleveland, where the cities failed to get the development along the rail lines, Mr. Hales said. They are declining rustbelt cities that have trouble getting other development too, he said.

FOR THE TROLLEY systems that resemble the vintage streetcars, such as Tampa and Little Rock, the system itself becomes a tourist attraction.

Ms. Wineland said River Rail gets 100,000 riders a year, most of them out-of-towners who are in Little Rock for conventions or to shop at the market. As the number of residents build up around the system, the transit authority is starting to see an increase in local ridership.

Businesses along the route frequently clamor for more platforms to take advantage of the riders to increase their business. Ms. Wineland said there's a restaurant on the route that places a mirror along a wall so that customers eating with their backs toward the windows can still see the River Rail trolley pass by.

Ms. Wineland said the trolleys aren't always full, which prompts letters to the editor about River Rail. Ridership is seasonable and goes up or down based on events downtown.

"It is just another amenity to the city," Ms. Wineland said.

Officials from Augusta plan to visit Little Rock in October, Ms. Woodard said.

Places such as San Francisco and New Orleans never did away with their street car or cable car systems. Both of them are icons of the city. New Orleans has brought its back after the destruction by Katrina.

Most of Augusta's old trolley line is gone, either ripped out of the street or buried under asphalt. The local trolley trains stopped running in December 1937, according to records at the Augusta Museum.

The Augusta trolley started in 1890 after a $700,000 initial investment. They shuttled people from downtown Augusta to the Summerville neighborhood. The trolleys stopped running when buses were introduced.

In September, the Downtown Development Authority will meet to discuss the streetcar rebirth idea with the engineering firm doing the initial study.

The hardest part will be the first leg, Mr. Hales said. Yes, the funding can be a challenge, but so is finding the political will to do the project. Madison, Wis., stopped after a year because there wasn't enough support for the idea at city hall.

For the places that get the streetcars installed, the expansions come quickly. Little Rock is looking at another one that will serve the airport and western suburbs, Ms. Wineland said.

"When that first leg is there, the people get on the trolley, love it and get it," Mr. Hales said.