A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What about a Streetcar in this Portland?

As a citizens committee mulls over how to improve Forest Avenue, I've been mulling over whether it might be a good place to try to build Maine's first modern streetcar.

I've run some back-of-the-envelope calculations, and I think that Portland could afford it - I'd actually go so far to say that Portland could easily afford it. It could well end up making the city fiscally better-off: smart-growth developers love streetcars, and a line along Forest could spur dozens of building projects to bring new thousands of new jobs and housing units into the corridor's empty and underutilized lots.

The stretch of Forest Avenue from Bayside to Woodfords Corner could be a really cool Main Street for Portland, similar to Congress Street downtown or Commercial Street in the Old Port. It's got a big university campus anchoring one end, and the down-on-its-heels-but-still-kicking Woodfords business district on the other, and a smattering of fine historic buildings and neighborhood attractions in between.

Unfortunately, a few businesses and landlords along the street are more interested in serving cars than in serving their own neighbors, and their drive-thrus and blighted parking lots are dragging the entire neighborhood down. Even the banks seem to be anti-development: two brand-new branches built within the past decade are killing the neighborhood's foot traffic (not to mention choke the neighborhood's vehicular traffic) with hideous drive-thru teller lines.

Still, a high-quality transit service might convince them that those parking lots and driveways might be more valuable as housing or workspace. By my rough count, there are over 20 acres of aging strip mall, parking lot, or empty land along the line from Woodfords Corner to downtown:

View Dowtown Streetcar feasibility in a larger map

If just a handful of those lots were redeveloped with 4-5 story buildings, the city could gain a few hundred thousand dollars annually in new tax revenue - enough to pay for the annual operations costs of a streetcar line. And many of these lots are owned by the government, from the Maine Dept. of Transportation's land-wasting Exit 6 interchange, to the extensive parking lots of the University of Maine Campus, to the City of Portland's public works lots in Bayside. The city and state could potentially sell 10-12 acres of downtown real estate, setting aside a few million dollars for a streetcar line and saving the rest for other programs.

The streetcar construction projects in the other Portland have averaged $12-$13 million per mile - a figure that includes road reconstruction work and the costs of the vehicles. The line I sketched out above would be 1.8 miles of track downtown, plus 2.4 miles of track out to Woodfords Corner and back (or 1.2 miles in each direction). Based on the ballpark $13 million per mile figure, Portland could buy this for around $55 million. And given that these streets will probably be reconstructed soon anyhow, the marginal additional cost would be substantially lower.

$55 million is a lot of money. But in terms of transportation investments, it's relatively cheap.The Jetport terminal expansion, for instance, is going to cost $60 million - funded by surcharges on our plane tickets. The old Turnpork Authority tollbooth proposal in York would have cost about $50 million. And widening Forest Avenue to accommodate more car traffic might easily run to over $100 million, in addition to the loss of dozens of taxpaying businesses and buildings.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the federal government matches up to 80% of our transportation infrastructure expenditures. If we could compete in effectiveness with other proposed streetcar projects in other cities, and earn the full 80% match, then City would only need to raise $11 million locally.

Still, even though a streetcar might be possible, it won't happen unless three very uncertain conditions are met:
  • key property owners along Forest Avenue and in Bayside get smart enough to replace their parking lots with new buildings, to help the line attract enough riders;
  • the surrounding neighborhoods remain open to having new neighbors, more businesses, and taller buildings along Forest Avenue, and
  • a leader in city government can champion the concept and secure funding from state and federal partners.
Right now, we have weak leaders, a lot of NIMBYism, and mostly unimaginative landowners. But maybe the idea of a high-quality streetcar line, and a fast connection to downtown Portland, could change things for the better.


Anonymous said...

Instead of using streetcars to create a local transportation for the consumers, why not look into pod cars.
Pod cars are easier to build without ripping up the streets and causing traffic delays. Pod cars can be built onto columns which would be built along the side of the streets or sidewalks and would operate 12 - 15 feet above the ground. Rails for the pod cars can be built into an area to offer transportation to the consumers.
The rail system can be extended and expanded to cover more area to accomodate the area in more need of transportation.
Other cities in the US are starting to build such a system that could speed up getting to shopping, businesses, schools and work.
You can do a search on google or any other search engine to read more about pod cars.

Don said...

@wheelie207 Interesting. Hadn't heard of these before. I like the concept of the 'horizontal elevator'. I considered this concept in my design for a multi-modal transit station at the top of the hill on Franklin Street. Parking garages in Bayside with green roofs and a Horz Elev up over the saddle and looping through Congress and Commercial. I was thinking streetcars, but there's always the issue of waiting time to justify a capacity of 80. This seems to fill the bill better for the HE concept. The pods should be sized to hold more than a car, though. One of the benefits of streetcars is that it gets people out of their steel shells so they can hear and talk to each other. A capacity of a dozen or so would allow for some humanity to mingle.
Interesting to transfer the elevator experience to this situation. Think of how the claustrophobia affects the way people interact. With windows I bet it would be quite different.
And the ride should be free..

Anonymous said...

You are right that this sort of transportation pays for itself, but the trick is that general increases in property taxes can't go straight to the transportation investment itself unless that is the only liability the City has. I think it has to go to paying off general revenue bonds first, so while it would improve the balance sheet, the funding wouldn't be directly available for this sort of system, and it would have to be seen as an investment over time rather than self-funded. Another tricky thing is that I think the fee in lieu of parking ordinance only applies to downtown (I could be wrong, though), and this may prohibit the parking areas from being developed (unless the new vision mandates higher density with associated zoning changes). Finally, even the fee in lieu has certain limits in order for it to retain legality. The obviousity (I know that's not a word but it gets the point across) of the logicality of these transportation changes is so great, but the regulatory framework needs to change to allow them if not embrace them before meaningful changes occur. I wrote a blawg about light rail in Portland a while back, if you are interested, here: http://mainelyurban.blogspot.com/2010/11/benefits-of-light-rail.html

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

There are lots of benefits to pod cars like making tighter turns and if you want to use the pod car you don't have to wait for it.
You can pay for the use of it you just get in and ride until you reach your station you choose.
Pod cars can be designed to go into parking garages and some businesses.
Some systems can hold from 4 to 8 passengers per pod.
I could go on and on, but like I said, just use the search engines to find it.
Also, if a streetcar system of 5 miles, you can build a pod car system of 15 - 20 miles and 10 or more stations at the same cost as the street car project.

Don said...

After my first response to the podcar idea I did some research. The two systems I came across were an existing system at U Va that has been in use for most of a decade, and a new system being built to service Heathrow airport. The two things these have in common, and what I think is the only reason these should be used, is the limited scope of the amenities served. I think they are feasible and sensible for a trip with your family from the car to the plane, or from one part of the campus to another for class (in a larger car so students can talk about the class they're headed for). In general, though, if you consider your vision for Forest Ave, all you are doing is creating a micro Radiant City system that even further isolates the passengers from their surroundings. The 'skyways' would be smaller, but still pollute the overhead views and open space, and I think the expense of construction and operation (with high complexity control systems) would be better spent on a more community oriented, context sensitive integrated solution. Trolleys/streetcars. There is still the issue of Door to Door, but I like to think there is a middle ground where instead of a multi-car trolley, there could be a single car with higher frequency. The beauty of streetcars is that they use the street, so infrastructure expense can be relatively small. And, as I saw mentioned somewhere, if you want to know where to catch a streetcar, follow the tracks.
Bayside-Congress Corridor-Waterfront should be high frequency low or no cost. My wishlist...

will said...

What about a line that ran along Baxter Blvd? Connecting one terminus of the Forest Ave line to East Deering, another spot that could use a little TOD.

Plus it would make a heck of a nice ride in summer, should the air come in off the cove through the tram windows...