Streetcar Model Unveiled

November 30, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — A needs study for which Grand Valley Metro Council hopes to raise $100,000 (see story page 6) would not affect two other ongoing transit studies. 

The needs study wouldn't have any impact on the Great Transit Grand Tomorrows project that's designed to bring bus rapid transit to the

Division Avenue
corridor. Neither would the study have any affect on the streetcar feasibility study for downtown Grand Rapids that's under way, said Peter Varga, executive director of The Rapid.

The Public Transportation Tomorrow Taskforce and consultants DMJM Harris have been analyzing ridership potential, development potential, possible alignments and destinations for a streetcar system, and have been looking at various factors including alternative corridors, utility impacts, vehicle design and other issues. Varga said the purpose of the study is to make the case for construction of the first segment of a streetcar system.

The task force has selected a 1.6-mile streetcar alignment that runs along

Monroe Avenue
from the SixthStreetBridge south to where Monroe turns into
Market Avenue
and continuing to south of the U.S. 131 overpass. It turns off at
Bartlett Street

"This is just a draft — a starting point," Varga stressed. "What we're looking for is community input into this process. What the task force wanted to do was to show that this alignment was the one that best fits the model of supporting major venues downtown and supporting economic development in the areas in which we think it's going to happen."

The community will have opportunities to view the model, pick it apart and offer suggestions. In no sense should the draft be viewed as the task force's firm idea of what should happen; it's what they believe is the best first segment of what they think will become a streetcar network, Varga explained.

"One of the things we want to find out from the community is how this fits in with their potential views on how extensions should be built in the future," Varga said. "What the task force was concerned about is that the first segment built has to show the greatest value to the community."

If the task force receives positive support from the community to keep moving on the project, it will continue analyzing what the streetcar system needs to make it successful, Varga added. He said there will be a number of meetings with various community groups to gather feedback. Rapid officials met with students at CalvinCollege, for example, and met informally with developers, as well, to get a feel for the potential for economic development in certain downtown areas.

"That's partially why the focus was Monroe north of the freeway and Market south of Fulton where there are two large areas that have the potential for development," Varga added.

Jim Fetzer, director of development for The Rapid, said the estimated cost for the first segment of a streetcar system, in today's dollars, is anywhere from $64 million to $80 million, and that includes tracks, purchase of streetcars and any utility issues that might be involved. He said this is just a preliminary estimate; the cost may come in at less than that.

He said the task force expects to complete the streetcar feasibility study in July 2008. At that time the first alignment, the cost and the economic benefit of the service will be identified, and a timeline for construction will be established. 

Varga said The Rapid is not submitting a funding request to either the state or federal government for the feasibility study. Rather, the hope is to build the first section of the street car project with publicly raised dollars and private funds. He said a streetcar project would support certain development that has occurred in the core city, as well as development to come.

Streetcars are enjoying resurgence in popularity as more and more cities reinvest in their urban core, according to the American Public Transit Association and the Community Streetcar Association. Many cities are now building or operating streetcar systems, including Tucson, Tampa, New Orleans, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Dallas and Portland, among others.

The Rapid recently took a delegation of 18 business and community leaders to Portland to evaluate that city's streetcar system and its role in stimulating economic development. Portland opened an initial 2.4-mile streetcar line in 2001 for a cost of $56.9 million, which it paid for through a public/private partnership. Three extensions have since added 1.6 miles to the system.

According to the city of Portland, by 2005, $2.39 billion in private investment had occurred within a two-block radius of the streetcar route, with construction of 7,248 new housing units and 4.6 million square feet of office, institutional, retail and hotel space.

Data compiled by the American Public Transit Association and the Community Streetcar Association indicates that streetcars generally provide 10 to 20 times their initial construction cost in private investment on or near the streetcar alignment.     

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