Streetcar Phase II: Now What to Do

Anyone who has tried can tell you that getting a streetcar in the ground isn’t easy.

Cities across the U.S. have grappled with critics who slam streetcars as an out-of-date form of transportation resurrected from a bygone era that lacks the flexibility of bus service. However, when the first leg of a streetcar system is built, many critics are silenced and the city can then reap the economic benefits of fixed-route rail transit.

But once the political battles die down, it’s time to move onto the second phase of the new streetcar in order to build a bigger system. While the political challenge may change, it’s still not an easy task.


Getting the first leg up and running

Adam Mohney, marketing specialist for Brookville, which is supplying cars for the new Dallas streetcar system slated to go online later this year, said when delivering units to an operator, the company makes sure to work with them to get the initial units ready to work and to provide any assistance needed for an extension of the system down the line.

When a new line is started, Mohney said Brookville customizes its training and manuals for the operators to make it as relevant to the system and best for its long-term goals. Personnel is also left on site for one year after the initial leg opens, so the operators of the line will have someone to guide them along and make sure they understand how to run and maintain the streetcar before it’s expanded to a wider system.

“We take a very comprehensive approach to the supplemental material in all the training we provide,” Mohney explained.

Ralph Davis, city engineer for Kansas City, which is finishing its final design on the first phase of its streetcar, said there were a number of studies done on extension routes, which have been boiled down to three potential extensions. The city has conducted interviews and is nearly set to select a firm to do the conceptual engineering and design of the extensions with the expectation of picking a finalist in May.

While the initial line will act more in a circulator fashion, Davis said the extensions will have stops spread further apart. While it probably won’t meet a light rail standard, the system will likely take more of a European tram mentality.

“It’s still more of a circulator, but it will kind of have an enhanced role in the extension routes,” he said.

Going into the next phases of development of the system, Davis said he doesn’t expect the process to change too much because the extensions will still be going through neighborhoods.

In July, the city of Tucson, Ariz., hopes to begin service on its brand new four-mile streetcar line, which will run in the downtown area of the city. While Transportation Administrator Shellie Ginn says all efforts now are concentrated on making the initial line a success, once the benefits of the line are seen in the community it would be time to look at extensions.

Ginn said the initial Tucson line wasn’t determined by mileage, but on how to better connect activity centers in the city. A major challenge was getting past barriers like I-10 and Union Pacific Railroad tracks, which provided barriers between redevelopment areas on the western edge of the line.

One of the biggest benefits the city had in planning the route, Ginn said, is the decision to purchase streetcars from Oregon Ironworks because it meant going to Portland, Ore., often and seeing what worked on that city’s line.

“We rode the Portland Streetcar all the time to see what worked and were talking with the drivers, going into the maintenance facilities with staff,” she said. “It really gave us an idea of how something would work for us or judging by our observations if there was something that we didn’t want to go in that direction.”


Deciding what comes next

Building and funding the first leg of a streetcar system in U.S. cities has been a major political challenge for most communities given the political fervor the projects bring from opponents and proponents. Supporters claim once the first line opens everyone changes and wants to know when the next line will open. While the conversation may change, that doesn’t mean the political battles disintegrate. They change in nature.

Dave Vozzolo, streetcar program director for HDR, said communities have a clear idea of what they’re trying to accomplish in the first leg of a streetcar system and it then becomes a challenge in deciding what the next steps will tackle. This can create challenges within the community as it determines the priorities of the second leg of the system because different stakeholders will want to prioritize different issues and how the extension will be funded.

“That leads me to another issue, which is the funding issue,” he said. “If the starter line uses some kind of assessment district with a boundary area around just that service area or a sales tax or special property tax assessment, you have to think about how you’re going to fund that next line and if you’re going to extend that special assessment into these new service areas because it can get pretty complicated.”

One issue Kansas City will have to tackle is the addition of more vehicles and how they will be paid for. The city purchased four CAF units as part of a piggyback order with Cincinnati, but Davis said the city will have to determine how to get funding in place to get more vehicles for a bigger system.

Studies have been done on possible extensions of the Tucson streetcar, but Ginn said planners are keeping their options open on possible routes or what the system could look like. Some proposed extensions could potentially look like light rail, but other parts of the system may work better as a true circulator.

“It could be a combination but it needs to be studied more for the direction for the way we want to go and that it makes sense,” she said.

Luke Olson, central region streetcar director for HDR, said when engineering for the first line begins, planners and engineers need to be looking into potential expansions and what will make the best routes in terms of extensions and how they’ll connect.

“Even when we’re going into the starter line, we’re thinking about what decisions could be made in the future for an extension,” he said. “For example, going down 18th Street may seem a logical corridor to consider in the future, but you need to consider how that would connect into our starter alignment on Main Street and making sure we’re not prohibiting the ability to go in that direction that you may want to consider in the future.”


Old decisions can be positive future steps

Vozzolo said new lines on a streetcar do have a much more expedited process in planning because a lot of the details about the system have already been settled. The first leg entails finding the starting corridor, choosing vehicles, platform designs, how the system will run in the street, how fare collection will happen and how shelters and stations will look. These issues are settled when the second line is planned.

Utility moves can be some of the most contentious parts of streetcar planning and construction, but with proper planning and working with the utilities, Vozzolo said issues are mitigated by working with private utilities in a good manner as soon as the initial phase is planned and making sure to minimize the impact on them.

“I remember one case where we worked with them and moved a stop and it saved the utility $5 million in costs,” he said. “It does get easier if you work with them on the first phase because they’re going to remember that and on the extensions they’re going to remember that and it’s going to make the conversation a little easier because they see you’re not just trying to connect the dots, you’re actually trying to work with them to avoid utilities. You try to minimize those impacts. There is no magic bullet; there’s always going to be utilities to deal with one way or another because it’s not like all of a sudden there isn’t going to be utilities.”

Ginn said planners learned a lot about the issues of streetcar building as the first line runs through the oldest part of Tucson, so there were lots of utilities to handle.

Planning and building the Tucson streetcar has been a 10-year process, Ginn said, so the city and planners have learned a lot of valuable practices and insights in how to better plan and communicate with different members of the community.

Ginn said Tucson plans to put together a best practices study on the streetcar process to share with other cities looking to implement streetcars in order to mitigate issues. One issue Tucson learned was the importance of addressing safety and security early in the design phase as opposed to later in order to look at all potential safety issues in a thorough manner. The city also learned the importance in communicating aspects of the project to residents because when they see tracks, overhead wires or a streetcar being tested, they may not understand what to do.

“You may have to just overkill on communications,” she said. “We just really need to educate them on what’s involved when the tracks and overhead wires are installed.”

Davis said communication has proven to be a valuable tool in the building process, so it’s important they beef up efforts when planning extensions into a new neighborhood.

“We’re still in the neighborhoods and still in front of businesses and property owners and they will still have the same concerns about access,” Davis said. “We will still have to go through those same steps and we won’t be able to skip these steps. While it’s somewhat easier, at the same time you still have to go through a lot of the same issues.

“I think what we found is that we do need to make lots of personal contacts within these neighborhoods and residents because they’re going to tell you their specific concerns and we want to hear those concerns and we want to write them down,” he continued. “A lot of it is you can’t have too much communication and that’s a real lesson.

“We will make sure we have more of these interactions because at a point, having a public meeting isn’t ever enough so you need to canvass those directly impacted.”