Columbus, Ohio, might not be your image of booming America, but
Mayor Michael Coleman says an explosion of jobs and immigration have
made it the second-fastest-growing city in the Midwest from 2000 to
2005 (after Indianapolis). Now in his second term, Mayor Coleman is
determined to shape Ohio's largest urban area - once No. 3 behind
Cleveland and Cincinnati - into a 21st-century city.
His plan includes a streetcar system that would connect
Columbus's spread-out downtown attractions, and bring an estimated 6
to 1 return on the initial investment, according to a city-
commissioned study. They are riding streetcars into the 21st
century? Is this "Back to the Future"? Well, yes.
After Portland, Ore., launched the first modern streetcar system
in 2001, cities and towns from coast to coast - impressed by the
financial success of Portland's venture - have followed suit or
examined the possibility of returning the forgotten vehicles to
their streets. While not a solution to traffic congestion or
pollution, streetcars have proved to be an attractive amenity to
revitalized downtowns, encouraging street life and community,
boosting development, and promoting energy-efficient transportation.
"Streetcars aren't going to change the world, but they'll do
their part," says Jim Graebner, a Denver-based consultant and
chairman of the streetcar subcommittee for the American Public
Transportation Association in Washington.
Mr. Graebner was involved in plans for more than 30 streetcar
systems in the past couple of decades - half a dozen of which came
to be. He says the vehicles are sure to return as cities themselves
come back. Streetcars, he adds, don't need dedicated tracks - the
tracks are integrated into street traffic. And they're pedestrian
But this is not a retro-transit fashion fad; it's nostalgia with
a grass-roots twist. Most projects are championed not by transit
authorities, but by mayors and advocacy groups. They are paid for by
public/private partnerships, with little money from the Federal
Transit Administration. The FTA continues to fund mostly larger
people-moving enterprises, such as commuter rails. Streetcars,
advocates say, are for people in growing downtowns, not commuters.
"The streetcar is not a toy or a gimmick," says Charles Hales, a
senior vice president of HDR Engineering, a consulting firm in
Omaha, Neb. "It's a necessary response to people's return to the
Mr. Hales, who was instrumental in developing Portland's system,
says the city wanted to create "development-oriented transit" as
opposed to the traditional "transit-oriented development." The
former aims to encourage developers to build high-density areas,
where driving a car becomes an inconvenience. Couldn't buses, which
are cheaper, do the same? They might, advocates say, but "have you
seen developers write checks for buses?" Tracks, Hales says, show
the city's commitment.
Streetcars fueled urban growth in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries, but as cars took over after World War II and fueled urban
sprawl, most cities uprooted tracks.
Columbus is not a mass-transit city - it's car territory, but
Coleman says he is persuaded a streetcar will make a difference to
jobs, connectivity, and development. Still, he'll take it one step
at a time - having most recently appointed a committee to examine
how to pay for an initial two-mile route without raising taxes.
The average price for a mile of track ranges from $8 million to
$25 million, one-third to one-fifth the cost of commuter rails and
subways, Graebner says. …