Nickerson: Why Providence needs a streetcar systemApril 6th, 2011 at 7:00 am by Ted Nesi under General Talk
In the corners of Providence’s dark bistros, coffeehouses and martini bars, there is a whisper: “What about this streetcar business? Does it make any sense?”
I make my reputation writing about urban issues in Providence, so it is a fair question for me – except the question is often asked in hushed tones with averted eyes, as if I will have some secret, surprising answer; as if the questioner is letting me know it is safe for me to share my true secret feelings on the topic. I suspect that those askers are secretly hoping I will say, shaking my head sadly, “It costs too much.”
The projected $100 million cost of a streetcar line in Providence is not insignificant – and coincidentally, it is about the same as the projected cost of replacing the Pawtucket River Bridge (which as you may know has been limited for the last five years due to deferred maintenance).
It may indeed be possible that we could run buses along the same route and move the same amount of people for a smaller initial investment. Nevertheless, I’m all for bringing streetcars back to Providence.
My reasons for wanting streetcars are pragmatic, not romantic. While streetcars are a means of transportation, and will move people from one point to another, their biggest benefit will be as a spur to economic development and a tool for RIPTA, the city and the state to prove that they are committed to a robust transit system for the metropolitan area.
From Portland to Salt Lake City to New Orleans to Washington, cities across the country either already have streetcar systems or are planning to build or expand them. These cities are realizing the fiscal value of public transportation as an economic development tool and a means of improving their urban centers, and are making a commitment to 21st-century development.
Businesses and, perhaps more importantly, the talent they are looking to attract are looking for well-built cities that are easy to navigate. Employees want to avoid spending the bulk of their annual salaries on gas and parking and all their free time on a horrendous commute, and employers are looking for the same.
Providence’s proposed streetcar route will traverse the Jewelry District and the land made available by the removal of the old Interstate 195 – land that we can’t let sit fallow; land that we need to quickly develop to boost the economy.
Time and again, rail tracks on the roadbed have proven to be a strong draw for development. The Pearl District in Portland, Ore., is an example analogous to our Jewelry District – a rundown warehouse and factory district on the edge of downtown was transformed by the development that followed the streetcar tracks.
With alternate means of transportation in place, the city will be able to reduce or eliminate parking minimums for new developments. Reduced parking minimums mean fewer surface lots and more buildings with productive uses for us, the citizens of Providence. For the developer, it means spending less of their money storing cars, leaving more to be spent on amenities for people – because we all know that cars don’t spend money, people spend money.
Streetcar infrastructure signals a commitment to transit, a long-term commitment that buses cannot convey. While bus routes can come and go at the whim of a transit director or the first sign of a budget crunch, the infrastructure that comes with streetcars is much harder to abandon.
While rising gas prices are already sending commuters to RIPTA, there is still a stigma attached to public transit, particularly buses. People who do not ordinarily utilize public transit are more willing to hop on a streetcar; they often see them as better, fancier, more elegant. When these riders find that RIPTA is operating a well run streetcar that’s easy, enjoyable and convenient to ride, they may become more willing to commit to other forms of transit.
As RIPTA continues to work internally and with the General Assembly to figure out the best source of reliable funding for the agency, it will need more “friends” to speak in its favor. A visit to the comments section of the local paper of record when a story hits the media about RIPTA’s budget problems shows the need for the agency to have more positive and enthusiastic backers. Higher gas prices are here to stay; more people are going to need the services RIPTA provides going forward.
While the public relations and economic development components are important, there is of course a transit benefit.
I’ve heard it said that the proposed streetcar route from College Hill to Rhode Island Hospital via the Jewelry District is nothing more than a school bus for Brown University. While Brown will indeed benefit, it cannot be ignored that those two end points are among the largest employers in Rhode Island – employers that have managed better than others to resist the ravages of recession. Those two points will provide a ready customer base for the streetcar as it works its economic development magic on the Jewelry District and Downcity.
The streetcar route is also well-situated to fill the “last mile” gap in Rhode Island’s transit system – the “last mile” referring to the gap in an individual’s journey between where her transit trip ends and her ultimate destination.
Many eschew transit because of this “last mile” gap. Most buses in Rhode Island end their journeys in Kennedy Plaza, which was fine when the adjacent Financial District was the economic engine of the state. Now, though, the city’s jobs are spreading out like spokes of a bicycle from the plaza. The streetcar removes the need to go all the way into the plaza, and back out again on another mode of transport. People coming into the city from all directions can make their needed connections to their end points along the streetcar route.
The Core Connector Study, which is assessing the streetcar proposal, is also looking to make a connection to Providence’s train station. This connection could take the form of a streetcar spur from Kennedy Plaza; a shuttle bus between the plaza and station; or perhaps some other form. With strong commuter-rail service north of the city, and expanding commuter-rail service south of the city, this would create a vast customer shadow for the streetcar that covers two states.
The streetcar will fill in the “last mile” for commuter rail riders, as well. By providing alternative mobility options through the urban core and by getting new commuters onto commuter rail and buses, the streetcar will reduce automobile usage, decreasing our fossil-fuel consumption, reducing the need to provide parking in the city center, creating opportunities for vibrant new development, and relieving individuals and families of the costs of automobile commuting.
Yes, a streetcar line will cost us money. But when examining those cities building or planning streetcar systems, Providence is among the best suited structurally in the country to make such a line successful.
Our streetcar line will tick the boxes of serving existing employment areas, spurring economic development on under- or un-utilized land, and expanding transit ridership in the state and region. The investment is worth it, and the city and state should do all they can to support and promote it. •