The OC Register’s front-page piece below indicates that the reporter has been reading many of the same reports that I have been accumulating in my own personal research on streetcar systems around the nation. There may be something in everyone’s DNA to ride streetcars and trolleys. But, there also has to be a recessive gene that warns us not to spend more than we have or not to make a long-term commitment that we cannot keep. Let’s hope the recessive trait manifests itself and that the forecasted financial reports that should be available soon will provide a realistic picture of the true costs of a streetcar system. For more on this topic, see MOORLACH UPDATE — Trolley Folly — May 28, 2014).
Will 2 cities’ streetcar desire end in heartbreak?
Two mayors, two visions for streetcar lines. What’s missing? Any connection between them and approval by city and county officials.
BY MORGAN COOK / STAFF WRITER
When Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido pictures the city’s future after construction of a $240 million streetcar line from downtown to Garden Grove, he sees new development and a thriving economy, lighter traffic and happy commuters riding a robust and user-friendly mass transit system.
When Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait pictures his city’s future after construction of a similar $320 million streetcar line linking the city’s new transportation center and the Disneyland Resort, he sees years of disruptive construction, traffic congestion, mostly empty streetcars, injured residents and a money pit residents cannot afford.
Both proposals are electric light rail systems that get power from overhead lines but look more like modern trains than the vintage trolleys that cater to tourists. Both cities’ streetcars would ride steel rails embedded in existing lanes of major city streets, traveling in regular traffic at an average speed of 11 mph to 14 mph and stopping two or three times per mile.
Right now the two projects, neither of which has been approved by city or county officials, would not connect.
Supporters of the proposed projects say such rail systems help communities thrive by offering bus-averse riders a more attractive transit option. Also, they say, streetcars have fixed routes where businesses will take root and grow.
“I think there’s something in our DNA – and this occurs all over the world – we behave differently with buses. It’s just human nature. I don’t know why. And one thing we can do differently as cities and communities is spur on economic development by developing a rail system,” Pulido said during a tour of the proposed rail route.
Skeptics worry the rail systems are more likely to be a boondoggle for Orange County.
“I worry about seeing empty streetcars,” Tait said in an interview. “Streetcars are fixed, so once you put them in you can’t change the route to meet demand. And I think, as a transit agency, we should be where demand is. With streetcars, once you build it, it’s set.”
Both mayors sit on the board of directors of the Orange County Transportation Authority, the agency responsible for the streetcar proposed in Santa Ana. OCTA board members have starkly different opinions about the wisdom of building the two streetcar systems
Ten of the 12 board members have voted in support of the light rail systems. Tait and County Supervisor John Moorlach oppose the projects.
“The only thing (the streetcar) has going for it that’s a positive, as far as I can see, is that it’s novel,” Moorlach said. “It’s unique. It’s different than a bus. But is it safer than a bus? No, probably not. Is it more flexible than a bus? No.”
County residents have until July 7 to make formal suggestions and comments about the Santa Ana proposal and ask officials how the $240 million investment would likely shape their quality of life.
City and OCTA officials hope to fund the projects using a mix of local, state and federal money.
SCHOOL KIDS ON THE TRACKS
Santa Ana’s streetcar would travel four miles between the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center and the intersection of Westminster Avenue and Harbor Boulevard in Garden Grove.
More than half the route is along Santa Ana Boulevard, a major cross-town thoroughfare used by commuters to downtown.
Standing at the intersection of Santa Ana Boulevard and Raitt Street on Thursday morning, Pulido pointed out parallel dents in the pavement, a lingering vestige of the Pacific Electric Railway red car rails that once ran along a now-vacant stretch of publicly owned land.
The proposed project would bring the under-used land back to service as a dedicated path for the streetcar. The plan calls for a new bridge to carry the streetcar across the Santa Ana River. The new bridge would cross the river next to the historic Old Pacific Electric Santa Ana River Bridge, which Pulido said the city may one day restore and open to foot traffic. After crossing the river, the streetcar would continue its journey along the scenic edge of Willowick Golf Course and into a developing commercial area beyond.
Before reaching the dedicated portion of its route, the streetcar lines would pass within 40 feet of four schools, requiring students and parents to cross the tracks to get to school, according to planning documents.
Installing the line would require eliminating half the available parking spaces on Santa Ana Boulevard between Raitt and Flower streets, and many parking spaces along Fourth Street between Ross and Mortimer Streets, according to planning documents. Construction is expected to take a year and a half.
Pulido said the system will lead to new development because businesses will want to set up shop near the fixed path.
Little Rock, Ark., reportedly saw $800 million worth of new development along the streetcar line it opened in 2004, according to a 2013 study by the Central Arkansas Transit Authority. Portland, Ore., attributed 10,000 new residences and 5.4 million square feet of commercial space to the streetcar line it began operating in 2001.
Streetcar supporters say the new investment is clear evidence that streetcars promote development. But some researchers aren’t so sure.
The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service released a report this year that questioned whether streetcars were really responsible for the economic booms or whether new city subsidies and supportive land-use laws were the real driving forces.
The report pointed out that not all streetcar lines have stimulated property development. It also noted studies that found rapid bus transit systems have leveraged much more private investment per dollar of transit expenditure.
“Overall there is no clear evidence as to whether streetcars attract new riders to transit,” the report said.
The city of Anaheim is in charge of its own streetcar project, which has not yet been presented to the public for comment. The city may ask OCTA to take over responsibility for the project later in the planning process, Tait said.
Anaheim’s streetcar would travel a three-mile route, primarily in regular traffic on Katella Avenue, between the new Anaheim Regional Transportation Intermodal Center and the Disneyland Resort.
Planning documents predict 4,200 riders per day between the new regional transportation center and the resort.
Tait said that figure seems unrealistic, given existing ridership on the city’s shuttle between the existing transportation center and the resort.
“The ridership on the shuttle is negligible,” Tait said. “I’ve heard that number is less than 50 a day, so I have serious questions and concerns about the ridership projections.”
The number of people who board Metrolink trains each day at the Anaheim station also is far beneath ridership projections for the streetcar. According to a study OCTA released in 2013, the station had 550 daily Metrolink boardings in 2010.
Tait said he is concerned that streetcars put pedestrians, bicyclists and passengers at risk because they operate in regular traffic and cannot swerve or stop quickly. They would require about 200 feet to make an emergency stop from 35 mph, according to Tait’s calculations.
“I don’t know that people have considered the stopping distance when we’ve talked about this streetcar,” Tait said. “I worry about somebody stepping out in front, or a car stopping in front, or just all the things that happen in traffic.”
According to the Orange County Register’s analysis of Federal Transportation Administration data for 2011, the most recent year of data available, streetcars had more collisions per vehicle mile traveled than any other mode of mass transit.
Between 2003 and 2008, light rail transit systems such as streetcars were responsible for 83 percent of all non-suicide and non-trespassing public fatalities on rail systems, according to FTA research. Heavy rail systems such as subways and commuter rail systems were responsible for the remaining 17 percent.
Streetcar lines have also caused significant numbers of bicycle accidents, often because bicycle wheels get stuck in tracks. Sixty-seven percent of the 1,520 bicyclists surveyed in 2008 study of Portland’s streetcar system reported crashing at least once on streetcar tracks.
Pulido said safety was a top priority and that planners would address concerns before construction.
“We’re not going to build it if it’s not safe,” he said.
Contact the writer: mcook
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