Besides the aesthetic advantage catenary-less streetcars hold over the older technology, it also will lessen maintenance costs of the system as wires will no longer need to be replaced. Despite the advantages a catenary-less system brings, some planners are still a little gun shy with going with the technology given it’s still relatively new.
“The concerns cities have right now with the supercapacitors is it’s an ever-changing environment,” said Kyle Keahey, vice president and transit sector market leader for the central division of HNTB. “You’re going to be making a major investment in a technology that in 10 years from now may be obsolete and that’s really the concern they’re wrestling with.”
Guillaume Mehlman, senior vice president for North America for Alstom Transportation Inc., said off-wire-powered streetcars have been put in by that company in Dubai, France and other countries across the world. Alstom has seven systems around the world using battery power, third connector and capacitors to run off-wire, with the company working on an eighth wireless system now.
“The technology is mature,” he said. “It’s a reality elsewhere in the world.”
Not just for downtown anymore
Although many cities putting in modern streetcars have opted for a downtown circulator type design, Drouin said they should consider dropping that model in favor of using streetcar lines more like a light rail, similar to the lines in Toronto.
“When used for what they’re meant for, streetcars can be used in a better way than buses because they can transport more people,” he said.
Keahey said there’s a lot of desire by cities to begin using streetcar systems to mimic a light rail system, with some taking a hybrid approach. He said Austin had the idea of starting with a downtown circulator, but once planners began looking at new phases of initial streetcar lines, they saw transforming it to more of a line-haul function.
“We certainly didn’t see that type of conversation 10 years ago, but dollars became more scarce, so those trying to put in a streetcar, the plan of starting small and then expanding has become very common 10 years later.”
Critics of streetcars have instead pointed to bus rapid transit systems as alternatives to rail transportation as they use buses and therefore don’t require as much infrastructure to implement. Drouin said there’s nothing wrong with BRT lines, however, streetcars provide long-term cost benefits and are also more environmentally friendly given buses run on diesel fuel.
“The streetcar line, the people say it’s more expensive and it’s true, the capital costs to buy a streetcar are more expensive than to buy a bus,”Drouin said. “But streetcars last 30 to 40 years while a bus has to be replaced in 10 years so in a 20-year period, you’ve already replaced it twice with a bus, so it’s a matter of choice and go for the long run and get all of the savings, or do you do it quick. But we think it’s better to invest in the future now.”
Mehlman said Alstom has introduced the Citadis Spirit in Ottawa, which acts as a hybrid between a circulator and light rail system.
“That’s really the type of versatility and flexibility that cities want and the market requires if they want to take a streetcar system and expand it into light rail,” he said. “We have to adapt to those needs and provide those kinds of solutions.”
Still no less controversial
In Milwaukee, city officials are working with HNTB in the design phase of the initial leg of a streetcar system connecting the downtown area to the city’s lower eastside amid a fight to build the line, which spans back well over a decade with city leaders butting heads with suburban leaders who have tried to stop the project at all costs despite federal money that has sat dormant for years allotted to such a project.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been staunchly opposed to the streetcar project. And a Republican lawmaker whose district represents mostly the suburbs outside of the city and Milwaukee County has already stated he plans to draft legislation that would not allow for the cost of utility relocation for streetcar projects to be passed onto rate payers in an effort to try and kill the city’s project.