In late 2007, Seattle became the newest American city to reinstall streetcars when it opened up a 1.3 mile stretch of tracks looping through eleven downtown stops, including one about eight blocks from the Seattle Space Needle.

Earlier this month, the newly-created Northern Virginia Transportation Authority approved $37 million in funds to conduct preliminary engineering for a 4.7 mile streetcar line in Arlington from Pentagon City along Columbia Pike .

Could Charlottesville be among the next communities to look back at the nation’s transportation past in order to reduce traffic congestion and spark redevelopment along a central corridor?

That question is in part being addressed by the City’s Streetcar Task Force , a group of citizens and officials who have been studying the logistics of building a new streetcar system. Their work to-date is expected to culminate with a report to City Council next month.

Podcast produced by Charlottesville Tomorrow * Player by Odeo

Listen using player above or download a podcast interview with Gary Okerlund and Todd Gordon, two members of the Streetcar Task Force: Download 20080131-Streetcar-Task-Force.mp3


When the Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation commissioned the firm DJM+Harris Planning to assess Charlottesville’s transportation network in 2004, Engineer Roger Millar reached a definitive conclusion: the city’s quality of life was being negatively affected by its traffic congestion.

One of Millar’s suggestions was for Charlottesville to install a streetcar along West Main Street to support a dense zone of development between the City’s two thriving economic centers – the Corner district to the west, and the Downtown Mall to the east.  West Main currently functions as the main connector road between Charlottesville’s two social and financial hubs, but the DJM+Harris Planning study proposed that the city ought to make the corridor a destination in and of itself.

Later in 2004, the idea got a major boost  when a grant from the Blue Moon Fund paid for a group of City and County officials to travel to Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington to experience two successful streetcar systems firsthand.  In all, 24 people took the trip.

Since their return, several individuals have focused more in depth on potential streetcar implementation in this area, including designer Gary Okerlund and former mayor Maurice Cox, two current members of the Streetcar Task Force.  Okerlund Design Associates in particular has looked most closely at the design aspect and what specific architecture is needed along a streetcar route.

Council officially commissioned a Charlottesville Streetcar Task Force just over a year ago.  Gary Okerlund was named as one of the members, along with Harrison Rue of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Council , Rebecca White of UVa’s Parking and Transportation office , and Planning Commissioner Michael Osteen. In all, there are 16 members.

On February 17, 2008, the group will present City Council with a report detailing some of the land use decisions that will have to be made if the City decides to pursue a streetcar system. The work has also included “very preliminary” engineering work.

Careful evaluation of the West Main corridor has revealed that it would likely be able to host a single streetcar track in the middle of the street.  In the event of a streetcar stop, the track would split in two, with a stop creating a new median.  This enables a potential streetcar to run on a predictable schedule without interruption from normal street traffic, with the additional benefit that riders getting on and off would only have to cross one lane of vehicular traffic.

A proposed map of the Streetcar, which would eliminate bus traffic on West Main Street (Source: Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation)

The Downtown Transit Station is the proposed initial streetcar stop in Phase 1, while 1.2 miles away it will terminate at the intersection of West Main and Jefferson Park Avenue.  In between, streetcar planners hope to create a model of transit oriented development, with stops every few blocks intended to promote economic development within close walking distance along the length of the corridor.  A later expansion could go from the Corner to Barracks Road.

Gary Okerlund told Charlottesville Tomorrow that the City has already taken the initial steps toward such development on West Main, with a higher density rezoning several years ago that allowed for taller buildings without additional parking spaces.

Okerlund said the streetcar will further encourage infill development along West Main Street by providing a reliable way to get around. According to Todd Gordon, his colleague and fellow task force member, a rail-based transit line generally has a “sphere of influence” where development can occur within a quarter mile of the tracks.

Currently, CTS provides its most visible public transportation along West Main Street via its free bus service, known as the trolley.  This special bus designed to look like an old-fashioned streetcar  travels along much of the same pathway as its proposed replacement. The route is currently the most direct connection to the Mall and Grounds, and thus attracts both area residents and employees as well as those riders affiliated with UVa.  During any given hour, there are three vehicles traveling in one direction along the loop. These buses share traffic with other wheeled vehicles, leading to potential delays for riders during rush hour. Annual expenses for the trolley come to a combined $1,026,000 in operating costs for CTS.

Although far and away more expensive, a streetcar has a significant advantage over the existing trolley: it can either separate itself from existing street traffic via a distinct lane, or can utilize a “signal priority” system that turns traffic lights green with its approach, thus staying on a regular schedule.  This consistency – at a pace that may be quicker than driving during rush hour – would be expected to attract those “choice” riders who currently avoid public transportation because of the unpredictability.   One member of the Task Force says a streetcar’s advantage over a bus line is permanence.

“The biggest part of this is to convince people that a streetcar can do a lot more than just take people somewhere,” Gordon. “The streetcar has an ability to attract the dense mixed-use development that I think Charlottesville shown a preference for, and a desire for. And that type of development doesn’t spring up around a bus line.”

Gordon says that’s because bus routes can change, whereas rails in the ground  indicate a community’s seriousness about transit.

Furthermore, proponents of a streetcar line remind us that such a mode of transportation contributes less to both noise and air pollution, giving riders and residents added health and environmental benefits.

“It’s on rails, electrically-powered so it’s quieter, smoother, and far more energy efficient,” Okerlund said.

Gary Okerlund views the streetcar as a way to further the City’s goals of providing its citizens with affordable housing, increased jobs and environmental protection.  Okerlund told Charlottesville Tomorrow that a streetcar would fall in line with each goal via “mixed income housing along the transit-oriented development; more business along that heavily transited corridor; and a lowered environmental impact of cars as more people begin riding the streetcar.”

Okerlund says a firm cost-per-mile figure cannot be established until preliminary engineering is performed. That will take a more detailed analysis, similar to the one now authorized in Arlington County. But he says a streetcar in Charlottesville would have a capital cost between $10 and 15 million per mile. That figure would include the trams that would be operated, but not the annual operating budget.

The last streetcar journey in Charlottesville was taken in 1935 (Source: Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society)

One of the objectives of the Streetcar Task Force has been to identify a variety of sources of funding, including local government, federal dollars and private investments.  A key challenge for the task force, and City Council, will be to demonstrate that, in a small town like Charlottesville, that the up front financial investment in a streetcar will pay dividends for the entire community down “the rails.” Gordon acknowledges that the system will be very expensive to build, but that it could be worth it.

“We’re talking about spending a good deal of money, but because the streetcar has a development attraction to it, there’s a return on investment. The type of  dense development that a streetcar can attract pays into the tax base, and can eventually pay for itself.”

The streetcar would fit in with other capital transportation projects, such as a proposed bus rapid transit (BRT) line running along US 29 towards the airport.

“What’s important is creating a network of efficient transit so you have the option of going places without getting into a car,” Gordon said. If the streetcar were eventually extended to Barracks’ Road, and the streetcar line had a relatively short waiting period between trams, BRT passengers could potentially have a seamless commute  to both the University and downtown Charlottesville.  Okerlund said that the project would not work unless a passenger could catch a tram every ten minutes.

When the report of the Streetcar Task Force is presented to City Council in mid-February, Okerlund said it will give Council an assessment of where the route would be, the potential complications, and a rough cost estimate.  Gordon said the report provides an opportunity for residents to consider the City’s future.

“Unlike a proposal for a bus route, a proposal for street car is half about transit, and half about shaping the kind of development we see in the future,” he said.

Sean Tubbs & Kendall Singleton