Streetcars Go Green

What a difference a century makes — or not. In 1905, the Tucson Rapid Transit Co. purchased five electric streetcars. Originally used in Los Angeles, the streetcars carried more than 30 passengers each. The electric cars went into operation on June 1, 1906, with track and overhead wires in place. The modern electric streetcars replaced horse-driven streetcars that had operated in Tucson since 1879.

Fast forward 100 years and a population growth of nearly a million people. In May 2006, Tucson residents agreed to provide local funding for a modern streetcar system as part of a Regional Transportation Authority Plan approved by 60 percent of voters. The selection of modern streetcar as the locally preferred alternative (LPA) was unanimously approved by the mayor and Tucson city council, setting the project officially in motion. While Tucson’s original streetcars were green in color, the new streetcar system will be a sustainable shade of “green.”

LEEDing into the Future
Plans for the modern streetcar project coincided with the release of an ambitious new program from a collaboration of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Congress for New Urbanism and the National Resources Defense Council, putting Tucson in a unique position as host to the only transportation project accepted as a pilot project for the emerging Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design for Neighborhood Development (LEED-ND) program.

The Tucson modern streetcar system is one of 238 pilot projects selected in August 2007 to help create standards for a national certification system for sustainable neighborhood design and development. While the LEED program for commercial buildings has been in place for more than a decade, the LEED-ND program represents the “next generation of grween building thinking,” according to USGBC President Rick Fedrizzi.

Backed by the growing recognition that the urban sprawl that characterized growth of cities like Tucson through most of the 20th century is not a sustainable approach to continuing population expansion, the LEED-ND program aims to integrate the concepts of green building with smart growth and new urbanism to create more efficient communities.

The LEED-ND pilot projects encompass locations across 39 states and six other countries, with projects ranging from less than an acre in size to large-scale community developments of 10,000 acres and more.

Thinking Outside the Box
While the original LEED program continues to set the standard for individual buildings, the new focus on entire neighborhoods recognizes that development rarely occurs one building at a time. The LEED-ND program seeks to create a more powerful strategy for environmentally sustainable growth by focusing on compact, mixed-use neighborhoods that will make walking and non-driving transit options more attractive.

Bringing increased focus to essential issues such as community infrastructure, density development and resource conservation, the launch of the LEED-ND pilot program at the same time that Tucson voters approved the modern streetcar project presented project planners with a unique opportunity to showcase how a transit project can help lead a community to more sustainable choices and ultimately, a healthier place to live.

Yet even with an expanded opportunity to view sustainable development in broader terms than individual buildings, the application and acceptance of the Tucson modern streetcar project into the LEED-ND pilot represents true “outside-the-box” thinking by both the city of Tucson and the USGBC. While it has no building structures beyond basic facilities required to support streetcar operations, the Tucson streetcar system will connect existing and planned civic, cultural and educational facilities along its planned route.

With an estimated working population of 20,000 in its downtown area along with upwards of 35,000 students at the nearby University of Arizona, the streetcar system will connect major activity centers in the city’s core. With early estimates of daily ridership of 4,000 passengers each weekday, the Tucson modern streetcar project will provide a vivid demonstration of several key goals of the LEED-ND pilot, including increasing transportation choices, decreasing automobile dependence, encouraging healthy lifestyle choices and reducing sprawl-type development.

The Slow Process of Change
While events in the development of the modern streetcar project have moved forward at a fast clip in recent years, getting to that critical point of progress was a long time coming. The process was especially slow for a group of Tucson citizens who began advocating for a return of streetcars in the 1980s. By that time, as the University of Arizona approached its centennial celebration, any remaining streetcars in Tucson had been relegated to the inventory of museum collections.

The launch of the Old Pueblo Trolley in 1983 marked the beginning of a long effort to demonstrate the value of what, at that time, must have seemed like a step backward more than a step into the future.

The Old Pueblo Trolley achieved non-profit status and moved forward with a feasibility study funded by the state of Arizona and the city of Tucson to validate the viability of a historic trolley service in the downtown core. That study showed that more than 1,000 passengers a day would be served by a historic trolley system.

As the years passed, multiple ballot initiatives to provide funding for such a system went down to defeat. The Old Pueblo Trolley managed to implement a limited service that included historic trolleys that operated on weekends in a 10-block area.

New Beginnings for a New Century
By 2003, the city of Tucson Department of Transportation (TDOT) recognized the need for high capacity transit alternatives as population growth and limited parking placed ever-increasing challenges on the city core. City leaders began to look toward rail transit as a potential solution to meet the needs for mobility, connectivity and continued economic development.

The renaissance of streetcars in a few other major U.S. cities also provided Tucson with examples of success. The Portland, Ore., streetcar system had boosted economic development, with more than 7,000 new housing units constructed along its route. Estimates of development investment along the Portland streetcar route top $2 billion.

From Private Funding to a “Small Start”
Streetcar systems of a century ago faced unpaved, muddy and often unstable and crude roadbeds. Streetcar companies were owned and operated by private companies who created private franchise agreements with land owners and special service districts to raise capital to make track and roadbed improvements.

Developers understood the advantage of having a streetcar route adjacent to their land. Cities began to spread along radial patterns that followed streetcar lines. Early systems were also often granted street railway franchise agreements, allowing exclusive use of a street right-of-way in exchange for street upgrades. These early agreements provided a model for utility franchise agreements common in most cities today.

The surge in automobile ownership by mid-century turned many away from streetcars as urban areas moved into an era based on individual mobility. The result was loss of both municipal and public support for streetcar systems. The Depression years brought federal funding to build public roadways. By the 1950s, federal funds were flowing toward the creation of the interstate highway system. Streetcars were relegated to the junk heap or museum collections. Today, an array of federal, state and local programs exist to help communities around the country finance more sustainable modes of mass transit. For Tucson, the process began with a Major Transit Investment Study/Alternatives Analysis to gain Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Small Starts support under its New Starts capital investment grant program.

As part of the New Starts program, the Small Starts category provides funding for lower cost projects with a simplified project evaluation and rating by the FTA. Projects are rated on three criteria, including cost-effectiveness, land use, and other factors, such as economic development and congestion pricing.

Enter the Public
No mass transit system can be successful without public support. To ensure public support, Tucson officials worked hard to create a partnership with a variety of stakeholders from the outset. The TDOT hosted a Partnering Workshop that included team building exercises and brainstorming to identify issues and potential roadblocks to project success.

The partnering effort resulted in joint commitment among stakeholder groups to work together to generate a transit recommendation that would meet FTA guidelines and allow the city to apply for federal funding under the Small Starts program. The partnering effort grew into a Community Liaison Group (CLG) that would support the Transit on the Move study that began with the alternatives analysis. The result of this effort was completion of Phase 1 of the project in 2006. With extensive input from the public, project stakeholders and local, regional, state and federal agencies and elected officials, the Alternatives Analysis resulted in a scope of work and public involvement plan that met FTA guidelines and resulted in the selection of the modern streetcar as the preferred alternative.

Modern Streetcar Technology
When a city like Tucson looks at options to meet a need for increased mobility in an already developed city core, some features of modern streetcars can be important factors in the decision-making process. Two of the most important features of modern systems include their ability to be built within existing tight urban corridors and to operate alongside other traffic.

The modern streetcar is a fixed-guideway electric rail system that typically operates at street level in urban zones, able to make tight turns in busy intersections. Using a single vehicle along a track allows the system to operate safely in high traffic and in high pedestrian traffic areas while linking neighborhoods with activity centers. The ability to share lanes with other vehicle types and to operate in mixed traffic offers a key selection factor for cities like Tucson, because it eliminates the need for additional infrastructure to support signaling and communication systems.

Curbside or median platforms are simple to construct and require minimum passenger amenities and information. Overhead contact systems can be hung by span wire, taking advantage of existing shared-used poles with street lights and anchors embedded in building facades. The biggest construction disruption comes from the need to relocate underground utilities. In most cases, construction can progress without a need to shut down an entire roadway.

Heading to the Finish Line
With Phase I complete and local funding components in place, Tucson is well into the second of three major phases required to bring its modern streetcar system on-line. Operations are anticipated to begin in 2011. The Tucson system will include 3.9 miles of track alignment, with 19 stations and seven streetcars with a capacity of 130 passengers each.

Phase II involves environmental assessments and advanced conceptual engineering, expected to be complete later this year. It was during the early stages of Phase II that the USGBC requested nominations for its LEED-ND pilot program.

Phase III moves the project into final design and construction. Total capital costs are estimated at $144 million, with costs split 50/50 between local funding backed by a half-cent raise in local sales tax rates approved by the voters in 2006 and FTA Small Starts funds.

The benefits of the Tucson modern streetcar project will be felt for decades, as economic development along the streetcar route follows the opening of the line while reducing vehicle traffic in the downtown core helps control greenhouse gas emissions over the long term.

From a livability point of view, Tucson’s investment in a modern streetcar system will provide a sustainable transportation system for the city’s future. From a transit planning point of view, Tucson’s modern streetcar will be the first streetcar project to obtain both FTA Small Starts funding and LEED-ND certification, making it truly a model for a sustainable transportation system.

Reece Hanifin is a planner and Terry Nash is a transportation engineer with HDR, based in HDR’s Phoenix office.