Artist’s rendering of how a streetcar might look outside the City Center for Contemporary Arts

The Charlottesville City Council will consider a proposal to fund a further study of the feasibility of a streetcar system for the West Main Corridor. On June 16, 2008, Council heard the report of the streetcar task force created by former Mayor David Brown, and at least two Councilors expressed support for partial funding of a more detailed conceptual plan.  Other Councilors, as well as City Manager Gary O’Connell, thought the study should wait until the details of the future Regional Transit Authority are worked out.

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The report was presented by Gary Okerlund , a Charlottesville-based architect and member of the task force.  He said the report is more than just a feasibility study, but can serve as a set of conceptual blueprints that will satisfy any federal agency that might one day fund such transit projects. Okerlund told Council that he predicts streetcars will soon gain favor in Washington.

“Anyone that has a plan, knows what they’re doing, and is in line, is going to be in a better position than someone who isn’t,” Okerlund said.

The streetcar is seen as more than just a way to move people around Charlottesville. Okerlund said cities such as Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington have used their streetcar systems as a way to spur high-density development.  He called a streetcar system between downtown and the University of Virginia “a good tool” to achieve that goal along West Main, a road that he said is prone to traffic congestion. The task force was charged with looking to see if the corridor would benefit from a fixed transit system, rather than buses which can get stuck.

The study in Charlottesville dates back to 2003, when Okerlund said a transportation summit was held to study methods of to reducing traffic in the City. That was followed by a technical preview of a streetcar system in 2004 by transit engineer Roger Millar, who concluded that there were “no fatal barriers to a streetcar system.” Members of the Task Force as well as City and County staff took a field trip to Portland and Tacoma paid for by the Blue Moon Fund.

In general, streetcars are quieter and more fuel efficient than buses because they are powered by electric wires. Okerlund said these cables can be strung on posts that are aesthetically pleasing and can fade into the background. He showed Council a slide from a new system in Bordeaux, France, which is safely powered from below. Placing the power source underground would raise the costs, however.

Phase 1 of the streetcar system would travel between the Downtown Transit Station and the Corner district

The report recommends that the City hire a consultant to establish a base cost to build and operate a system, as well as a study of how the streetcar would affect development along West Main.  The price tag for such a study would be around $200,000.  Okerlund said this should be based on the first phase establishing a 1.3 mile route between Downtown and the University, though later phases of the streetcar could be added to connect to the Barracks Road Shopping Center as well as the Jefferson Park Avenue corridor. Okerlund gave a ballpark figure of $23 million for construction of this phase.

The study would also take a deeper look at how to fund the project. Okerlund suggested this pilot program would be a candidate funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts program, but he added that there will need to be a significant local revenue source as well. Portland dedicating the proceeds of its municipal parking revenue to the capital costs to help finance its streetcar system.

The other component of the study would be a “development analysis” to find out the existing development potential, the property tax implications for the City, ridership potential, and whether City zoning ordinances would need to be changed.  This study would also address how the streetcar would travel through the Corner district. One obstacle is the railroad bridge over 14th Street.

Developer Frank Stoner, who owns property along West Main, urged Council to fund the study as a way to jump-start investment on the corridor. Stoner said he has property interests along the corridor.

“If the City will take a leadership role in funding this, I think private funds will come along,” Stoner said. “West Main Street is a fragile corridor. Progress has been made over the last 20 years, but it’s been intermittent, it’s been at a level that is far below expectations in terms of mixed-use, urban density, and I think a streetcar has demonstrated… to be a huge catalyst for private investment and development.”

One question to be answered is whether the streetcar would pass under this bridge at 14th Street
Photo by Steve Cholewiak

Councilor Julian Taliaferro , a member of the Task Force, said he had originally thought further study should be postponed until after the Regional Transit Authority with Albemarle County is in place. But, he said he recently changed his mind.

“Maybe we should go ahead if we want to be prepared in the event the feds release some money to do this, we would probably be in a better position if we go ahead and do the study,” Taliaferro said. He added he was interested in funding 50 percent of the further study, if a private match could be found.

Councilor Satyendra Huja said the cost of the pilot project would be cheaper than the future Meadowcreek Parkway interchange, which is estimated to cost between $29 and $35 million. Huja said he also supported Taliaferro’s desire for further study, and was impressed with the record in Portland, which saw $2.3 billion in new development within 2 blocks of its streetcar within 4 years.

Councilor Holly Edwards asked how the streetcar would affects cyclists, who would have to contend with tracks in a road. Okerlund said vehicular traffic slows after a streetcar line is placed in, making it safer for bikes to travel along roads.

Councilor David Brown , who traveled to Portland to view the streetcars, said he was concerned with the costs of the system. He said Portland is a much larger city than Charlottesville  and could support the capital costs. In 2003, the US Census estimated the population of Portland at
538,544 compared with just over 40,000 in Charlottesville.

“To me, the issue is how much is it worth to invest in something we may not ever be able to afford and there may not ever be a funding stream for,” Brown said.  “I have trouble believing we could pay for this ourselves.” He also doubted that Charlottesville would qualify for federal funding given the small population here.

Councilor Edwards asked Okerlund if the RTA needed to be in place in order for further study to occur. He said he did not think so. Mayor Dave Norris asked if it made more sense to wait until the RTA, which is being created in part to explore new funding sources for transit, is formed. Okerlund said the streetcar study would benefit it is done sooner rather than later.

“If we begin now, we’ll be better prepared to do it,” Okerlund said.

Norris said the RTA and the streetcar discussion needed to be woven together in order to make sure that the streetcar did not pre-empt other components of an expanded regional transit network. Bill Watterson, director of the Charlottesville Transit Service, said the RTA discussion was not mode dependent, and he did not anticipate any compatibility issues.

Norris said Council did not have anything to act on from the report, and asked staff to evaluate the requirements for further study of the streetcar proposal. He directed staff to make sure any work in this area be linked to the RTA. Norris also directed staff to identify where any City money would come from in the budget to fund the study.

Huja  encouraged staff to bring forth a proposal soon. City Manager Gary O’Connell said the interest of the private sector needed to be established first.

“We’ll see if Mr. Stoner can pull together $100,000 worth of investors,” O’Connell said.   The matter is expected to come back before City Council at a future meeting.


Sean Tubbs