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Streetcars still engines of economic development

August 27,2015

From bettercities.net

The impact of streetcars on neighborhoods, development, and commercial districts has come up in several reports that I have come across recently.  

The streetcar trend continues across America, according to Progressive Railroading:

In just the past two years, the streetcar renaissance has led to new lines in Salt Lake City; Dallas; Atlanta; Tucson, Ariz.; and Charlotte, N.C. Cities with lines under design or construction include Los Angeles; Seattle; Detroit; Cincinnati; Milwaukee; Kansas City, Mo.; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Others — St. Louis; Baton Rouge, La.; and Minneapolis, among them — are studying the possibility of launching streetcar lines.

Dozens of US cities are now home to streetcars and "another 30 are designing or building new systems or expanding lines." Economic development is a primary motivation. "Good streetcar systems are planned along urban corridors where development is already happening or it is anticipated to happen," Michael Townes of HNTB Corp. told the publication. 

The poster child for streetcar-induced development is Portland, where an 8.6-mile system in two loops has helped to spur more than $4.5 billion in development, according to a recent analysis from Portland Streetcar. This includes 18,000 residential units and 7.7 million square feet of commercial space within a quarter mile of the streetcar. "The market value of all property in the corridor (both new and existing has increased by $11.63 billion since 1998)," according to the report. 

A substantial portion of the development (including 41 percent of residential units and 35 percent of commercial development) is attributable to the streetcar, says the organization. A quarter of the 18,000 units are subsidized affordable housing. The value of real estate within a quarter mile of the streetcar is now 17 percent of the city's total—up from 11 percent in 1998.

“While there are plenty of factors that influence investment decisions, we’ve seen that the Streetcar has had a positive impact on economic development in the Central City,” said Dan Bower, executive director of the non-profit Portland Streetcar, Inc. “By providing affordable, accessible, and reliable service, the Streetcar is a key part of what makes Portland such a livable city.”

Meanwhile, University of Connecticut engineering professor Norman Garrick recently wrote in the Hartford Courant that elimination of the streetcar was a catalyst for decline in that city.

Our research at UConn suggests that the decline of Hartford's commercial centers started with the removal of the streetcars. But now some cities around the country are reversing that trend — showing that streetcars can be a cost-effective catalyst for the restoration of neighborhood life. Look to Providence, which is well on the way to re-introducing streetcars — not simply as a transportation project, but as a way of spurring economic development and street life.

The Kansas City streetcar, due to open in 2016, is fairly typical in its impact:

"The $102 million project is already being credited with stimulating development in the area. Since the project began, about $1 billion in new investment has entered the downtown picture; about $381 million of that is due to the streetcar line, authority officials say," says Progressive Railroading.