A Streetcar Named Eugene?
Trolleys would put LTD back on track
By Alan Pittman
The Lane Transit District (LTD) has spent $25 million on a bus rapid transit system called EmX with plans to spend about $100 million more in the next several years.
But many question whether bus rapid transit (BRT) is on track. To reinvigorate downtown and promote sustainable transportation, they desire a streetcar system like the ones Portland and a growing number of other cities enjoy.
LTD officials have long argued that streetcars are too expensive and Eugene is too small for them. "LTD is not enamored with rail," the bus agency's board Chairman Gerry Gaydos told the Eugene City Council at a recent meeting.
But light rail supporters hotly dispute that BRT is cheaper than light rail. They also argue that Eugene isn't too small for streetcars and that light rail has many benefits beyond BRT, like spurring urban redevelopment and ridership with more fun.
|Portland's popular streetcars have spurred billions in downtown redevelopment|
|LTD says BRT has increased ridership 60 percent over the bus line it replaced|
|Eugene once had an extensive trolley system|
LTD board member Greg Evans argued that light rail costs $30 million to $50 million per mile compared to the $6 million per mile LTD has spent on BRT. "I think BRT makes the most sense," he told councilors.
But such BRT vs. light rail cost comparisons are widely disputed. The Texas-based Light Rail Now advocacy group argues that when BRT's higher operating costs and lower capacity are compared, "light rail actually gives amazing bang for the buck."
To prove its point, Light Rail Now examined the total 10-year cost of bus vs. rail service in St. Louis, Mo. The group found far higher initial capital costs for light rail but far lower ongoing operations and maintenance costs. Overall, light rail was 16 percent cheaper per passenger mile than buses. The group attributed the difference to the need for fewer drivers for larger capacity trains and the trains' far longer lifespan and lower maintenance and fuel costs.
Trolley advocates also point out that light rail can be flexible to save money. Portland, for example, runs its trains on tracks embedded in streets where necessary to save on right-of-way costs. Such streetcars can cost about five times less than full light rail systems with dedicated lines.
Some more elaborate BRT systems exceed light rail costs, according to Light Rail Now. BRT lines in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles cost $50 million a mile compared to light rail lines in three other cities that averaged $23 million per mile, according to the group.
Councilor Bonny Bettman disputed LTD's claims that BRT was cheaper. "There's never been an overarching, across-the-board cost benefit analysis," she said. "None of that has ever been looked at."
Bettman points out that LTD is proposing an expensive redesign of Franklin Boulevard to add two dedicated BRT lanes rather than the current one lane or no lane along the route. Bettman said the project, including boulevard amenities, could cost $30 million a mile.
But light rail opponents argue that Eugene just isn't big enough for streetcars. "Our city is just at this point too small," said Councilor Alan Zelenka. In 30 to 50 years, he said, Eugene may be big enough to replace the BRT right-of-way acquired now with a light rail line.
Bettman points out that Eugene had an extensive electric trolley system from 1907 to 1928 when the city was much smaller. "Eugene had a very viable streetcar system when there were only 10,000 people here."
The system included a line to Springfield, a Fairmount Loop, a line out Blair Boulevard, and a College Hill loop running from the train station down Willamette Street to 29th Avenue and then looping back through the Friendly neighborhood and West 11th Avenue (see map).
Councilor Betty Taylor said a similar downtown streetcar route on Willamette Street "would be a great idea."
While it's true new light rail systems have mostly been built in larger cities, there are also smaller examples. Kenosha, Wisc., with a population of slightly under a hundred thousand, opened a line in 2000. Little Rock, Ark., population 184,000, opened a line in 2004. The Eugene/ Springfield metropolitan area has a population of about 300,000.
Light rail advocates point out that although critics frequently argue the transit system should not be built in smaller cities, the same argument is rarely made when it comes to far more expensive freeway systems.
While costs are similar or less, advocates say streetcars have many important advantages that BRT can't match.
The most important of these is redevelopment into more livable cities. Portland boasts that it attracted $2.3 billion in sustainable urban redevelopment to the Pearl District with its $52 million streetcar line. Dozens of other cities have followed Portland's example in recent years. Tampa officials say their $55 million streetcar investment downtown sparked $1 billion in private redevelopment.
Instead of focusing on spending tens of millions of dollars on parking garages like the failed urban renewal scheme in the November election, Bettman said the city could spur redevelopment downtown with a popular streetcar. "It's the quintessential downtown strategy."
UO planning and architecture Professor Jerry Diethelm said that with its fixed rails, streetcars offer a certainty to developers that the line won't move. BRT lines are more easily relocated, he said. "It doesn't have the same impact."
Indeed, while streetcar lines in other cities have sparked intense redevelopment even before they open, there's little evidence of redevelopment caused by LTD's EmX line.
Shelley Poticha, president of Reconnecting America, a national nonprofit advocating transit oriented development, testified to Congress last year in support of light rail. She said rail transit has become an increasingly popular tool for cities to use to create environmentally friendly and livable downtown redevelopment. Poticha, the daughter of local architect Otto Poticha, said the redevelopment value of streetcars has helped spark a rail transit "boom" across the nation with 700 new stations now under development for a total of 4,000 nationwide.
Kenosha used its streetcar to attract a flood of condo redevelopment. The city's transportation director Len Brandrup recently gave USA Today a simple explanation of why the city opted for streetcars. "Developers don't write checks for buses," he said.
One of the biggest advantages streetcars have over BRT is fun.
With smoother, faster rides in more spacious, comfortable, quiet and attractive cars with less exhaust and more nostalgia, rail attracts more riders than bus systems, according to a recent study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI). Because many more of these riders are discretionary car users, rail can have twice the impact of reducing driving as bus systems, according to VTPI. The transportation researchers found that cities with rail systems had a 400 percent higher transit ridership compared to cities with just buses.
Shelley Poticha notes that many cities use rail's cool factor as "a key amenity in attracting the highly desirable 'creative class' to local economies."
With more ridership comes the many benefits that transit offers including reduced global warming, lower road and garage costs, less obesity, less smog, less congestion, more affordable housing and increased livability, VTPI and Poticha point out.
Portland officials recognized the overall greater benefits of light rail three decades ago when they listened to public sentiment. They dropped a proposal by planners for an east side busway and chose instead to build the city's first light rail line.
But LTD General Manager Mark Pangborn said even if LTD wanted light rail, it couldn't get the needed federal grant money from the Bush administration. "We were told flat out by the federal transit agency" that the region was too small for rail, he said. "They said you're not even in the ball game."
The Bush administration publicly clashed last month with Portland over funding a new streetcar line. The Oregonian reported that top Bush officials are rejecting light rail, arguing that BRT is more cost efficient.
But siding against trolleys with a lame duck president who's intensely unpopular locally may be the wrong place for LTD to be. Local Congressman Peter DeFazio, who chairs a key House transportation committee, blasted the Bush administration's opposition to light rail as "totally misanthropic," and light rail advocates predict the federal BRT bias will end after November.
Bettman said Eugene shouldn't wait for LTD to come around on streetcars. "The city should do it instead of LTD," she said, citing the example of how the city of Portland, not TriMet, built its successful streetcar system.
Diethelm agrees that the city should establish its own streetcar authority. "I don't think LTD should do it," he said. "They don't want to do it."
"Right now LTD is sucking up every available dollar," Bettman said of the available federal funding. "We need to take back some of that authority to receive transit money."