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PHOTO CAPTION: Washington DC tram on display. Photo credit: Flickr.

Return of the Streetcar?

Are the growing number of American streetcar lines about improving transit options or attracting economic growth?

Published: 31-Dec-2013

Keeping up with the progress of America’s streetcar projects is no small task. Last Friday, Washington, D.C., rolled a tram onto the street behind Union Station, the city’s first in 50 years. On Saturday, Salt Lake City opened the Sugar House streetcar line, which runs two miles from a regional rail station to a business district south of downtown. Meanwhile, it was “do-or-die” week for the Cincinnati streetcar, as supporters scrambled to save a downtown spur whose construction the mayor-elect has pledged to halt. On Thursday, they succeeded; construction in Cincinnati will continue.

Ten U.S. cities have streetcar projects in various stages of construction, while five more — San Antonio, Kansas City, Fort Lauderdale, St. Louis and Detroit — have secured funding but not yet broken ground. Still other cities, such as Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Los Angeles, have streetcar plans in various stages of development. Barring a series of Cincinnati-style meltdowns, by 2015 the U.S. will have about 30 cities with streetcars, more than twice as many as at the millennium.

This sudden expansion owes much to the revival of transit-friendly urbanism, where population and property values have risen dramatically since the turn of the century. But the streetcar boom may be more directly traced to the provisions of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and particularly to the TIGER grant program, which has since doled out some $3.5 billion to several hundred transit and infrastructure projects. In total, the Department of Transportation has distributed about a half billion dollars to downtown streetcar projects over the last five years. Functioning streetcars will form a kind of urban design legacy for the Obama administration, whose most ambitious transit goal, high-speed rail, has been thwarted by the intransigence of Republican governors in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin and beset by problems in California.

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