(As seen on WZZM TV 13) The possibility of a streetcar line in Grand Rapids is again under consideration.
The idea was first proposed in 2008, but quickly dissolved due to the economic downturn. Recently, however, a new committee was formed, and a study now is underway to determine the viability of a streetcar line in the city.
But don’t get too excited just yet. Josh Leffingwell, a member of the streetcar committee and communications director at West Michigan Environmental Action Council, said it’s still too early in the process to know if Grand Rapids will actually get a streetcar line.
“We are looking at ‘should we do this, is it viable to do this, if so how do we do it,’” he said. “We are willing to walk away if it’s not a good idea.”
Cost is a main consideration. Putting in two miles of streetcar line would cost approximately $100 million to $120 million. In comparison, Leffingwell said that buffer amount of $20 million alone could fund a significant increase in bike lanes or a bus rapid transit line.
“We could have five BRT lines for the cost of this streetcar line,” he said.
However, BRT lines do not serve the same function as a streetcar line. Leffingwell said the biggest difference is that a BRT line has a transportation objective — getting people into and around the city, while a streetcar line is an economic development tool and serves to get people to go a little further than they would on foot.
He said most people who may not be willing to walk a few more blocks for lunch would be willing to hop on a streetcar to traverse those extra blocks.
That is also why a streetcar line makes more frequent stops, usually about every 600 feet, than a BRT line, which typically has stops every mile.
Leffingwell also noted that, strategically, streetcars are typically added to underdeveloped areas as a way to encourage development and investment.
“If you put it in a developed area, what is that going to benefit?” he asked. “There aren’t going to be new buildings going up.” As an example, he pointed to Monroe Center in the heart of downtown, saying the area isn’t going to see significant new development.
On the other hand, he pointed out, “If you put it on Monroe (Avenue) in the North Monroe area, there’s not a lot of buildings there, but that area could have high rises along the river. All that vacant land is actually why you do a streetcar line.”
The Monroe North area is one of the areas under consideration for the streetcar line.
The Rapid recently added DASH bus service to the Monroe North area, but Leffingwell said the purpose of the DASH lines also is different than a streetcar line.
“DASH is run by The Rapid, but it’s not paid for at all by The Rapid. If you look at who it’s funded by, it’s funded by Parking Services,” he said. “The goal of the DASH is to get people from parking lots to businesses. If you look at where the stops are located, they are located in remote areas. They are about transporting people from parking ramps and spaces to buildings.”
Leffingwell said adding a streetcar line gives people another option for getting around downtown and is part of an overall intermodal transportation system a city needs to attract residents.
He pointed out that streetcar lines are once again becoming commonplace — there have not been this many streetcar projects across the country since the 1890s.
In large part, the increase of streetcar lines and other light-rail options has to do with a significant shift in urban planning.
“We are starting to look at the way that we’ve built our cities and who we’ve built our cities for,” Leffingwell said. “If you look at the Arena South area — that whole planning process, all those parking areas and ramps — again some of our most valuable real estate is for storing cars for people who live outside the city.
“We built our city to make it really convenient for people to live outside of Grand Rapids, and we are starting to see this shift in the city to where we are saying, ‘Why don’t we build the city for people who live in the city and that will attract people from outside the city to move in?’”
Leffingwell said the streetcar study will be completed later this year and the committee then will review the findings to decide any next steps, including where the funding would come from.