Renewed Desire to Bring Back Streetcar System

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — City and state officials envision a streetcar system similar to the one Portland, Ore., operates that initially would connect College Hill to the hospital district.

This proposed “starter” streetcar line would serve as a circulator within a roughly 2-mile corridor in downtown Providence, according to the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority’s recently released Providence Metropolitan Transit Enhancement Study.

While alignment and operating plans will be finalized in the next phase of streetcar development, this “Meds to Eds” concept, according to the study, would connect Rhode Island Hospital, the Jewelry District, downtown and Kennedy Plaza.

At the Kennedy Plaza bus station, the line would split, with one line going to the train station and the other to Thayer Street, on the city’s East Side near Brown University.

In Portland, which has a population nearing 558,000, streetcars run on an 8-mile continuous loop that includes stops at the Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital, Portland State University and the Portland Aerial Tram. Each of the city’s 10 streetcars can carry a “sardine” load of up to 140 passengers.

Portland’s streetcar system began operating in summer 2001. The line operates seven days a week, and averages nearly 10,000 passengers a day, according to portlandstreetcar.org.

That city’s 8-year-old streetcar system has helped stimulate $3.5 billion in new development, according to those behind Providence’s bid to bring streetcars back to the Ocean State.

The United States features about 70 operating, under construction or planned electric streetcar systems. Such systems are typically powered by overhead wires, operate on tracks and share the road with other vehicles.

Providence’s metropolitan transit study concluded “streetcars are often the catalyst for new development, revitalizing existing neighborhoods and promoting public transit use by new riders.”

“Building a streetcar system in Providence would generate near-term economic stimulus from construction activity as well as sustained mixed-use development opportunities in areas targeted for economic growth,” according to the study.

The Providence study estimated a streetcar system would provide the city with a “huge economic benefit” and help develop some 3 million square feet of vacant land. It also estimated such a plan would bring about 4,300 jobs and 2,200 residents to the city.

A streetcar system in Providence would hardly be a new venture, however. From about the late-1800s to shortly after World War II, some type of streetcar system operated in the city.

It will be an expensive system to bring back.

According to officials, $76 million of the nearly $127 million it would cost to implement all of the study’s recommendations would go toward bringing back streetcars. How such a streetcar system and the rest of the recommendations would be funded remains unclear.

Officials are targeting 2015 as a possible date when the first phase of a streetcar system could be up and running.

“Investment in a strong, modern public transportation system is critical to our efforts to grow our economy and create jobs,” Providence Mayor David Cicilline wrote in a prepared statement that announced the unveiling of the study. “This action plan is the road map for building a 21st-century intermodal system to meet the needs of our workforce, support economic development and protect our environment.”

The Providence Metropolitan Transit Enhancement Study is the result of a yearlong effort to develop strategies to enhance public transportation within the urban core of Providence, East Providence, North Providence, Pawtucket, Warwick, Cranston and Central Falls.

The study called for more buses, more bus lines, more bus service, especially at night and on weekends, and new bus shelters, so waiting riders aren’t battered by New England’s sometimes-rough weather.

The study also called for more park-and-ride lots, reconfiguring Kennedy Plaza to eliminate several bus berths and make the plaza more pedestrian friendly, and, in the long term, institute rapid bus service.

“The recommendations in this study align well with Rhode Island’s published vision for economic prosperity and long-term quality of life,” John Flaherty, co-chairman of the Rhode Island Coalition for Transportation Choices, wrote in a prepared statement. “If we’re going to effectively compete in a 21st-century economy, capitalize on our compact development patterns and use limited resources wisely, investing in a comprehensive public transportation system is essential. The challenge ahead will be identifying the remaining federal, state and private resources needed for implementation and raising awareness of the urgency and economic development benefit of making these investments now.”