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Streetcar Conversation Restarted at Columbus Metro Club

Walker Evans Walker Evans Streetcar Conversation Restarted at Columbus Metro ClubConceptual composite image by Walker Evans.
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John Carroll has been described as the “father” of the Portland Streetcar, the “sultan” of the Portland Streetcar and several other lavish titles. He humbly laughs these phrases off when brought up in conversation, but one thing is certain — he has been around since the project was first started.

“In 1990, a Portland Councilmember asked me to spend three months putting together a plan and chair the advisory committee,” explained Carroll over drinks at Cafe Brioso yesterday afternoon. “That report was generated in 1993 but I’ve spent 24 years on it ever since.”

Carroll is one of two national guests who have been invited by the Columbus Metropolitan Club to speak at one of their weekly luncheon events taking place today, and the topic is obviously centered on transportation. The forum is titled “ROI of Public Transportation” and while Carroll’s experiences vary across many forms of transit, he still speaks most excitedly about the Portland Streetcar.

If you’re unfamiliar, the Portland Streetcar debuted in 2001 with a short two-and-a-half-mile $57 million circulator line that connected Portlan State University, Downtown Portland, the formerly dilapidated Pearl District and the dense Northwest/Nob Hill residential neighborhood. The line has been expanded three times further south in 2005, 2006 and 2007. A second line was added to connect Downtown Portland with Eastside neighborhoods on the other side of the Willamette River. Ridership on the system was clocked in at 4.1 million trips in 2013 and the success of the system is often touted as a high-water benchmark for modern Streetcar lines that have been built or planned in the past decade in dozens of major cities all across the country.

Except for Columbus.

Our city’s streetcar system was announced in 2006 as a visionary new plan that would pave the way for dense urban development between Downtown and the Ohio State University. In 2009 it was quietly shelved when the city faced budget shortfalls and an income tax increase was placed on the ballot. The national recession was in full effect by that time, and the Columbus Streetcar has continued to sit on the backburner ever since.

Today, the Columbus Metropolitan Club seeks to restart the community conversation. Would Columbus benefit from a Streetcar?

Carroll thinks that the conversation is certainly worth of revisiting.

“In Portland we connected our highest density neighborhood, some under-developed land, our Downtown, our education institution and our under-develoepd waterfront — and these are parallels I see very close to Columbus with OSU, the Short North, Arena District, Downtown, and other areas,” he stated. “Every city is going to be unique, but key fundamental components are the same for transit development discussions. You need to have participants from the community, the neighborhood associations, local businesses and citizens as well — all need to be involved in the process.”

In addition to serving on Portland Streetcar planning committees , Carroll also represented interests from the private sector. As a developer, he has constructed six large-scale properties directly on the Streetcar line and another one within close proximity. Some of those developments include the 18-story Eliot Tower, 12-story Gregory Lofts and 16-story Elizabeth Lofts.

“The city of Portland has seen a total of over 4.5 billion in development investment within the streetcar envelope in the last nine or ten years, and there’s another 1.5 billion in the works,” said Carroll. “For the city the size of Portland, those are huge numbers — huge investments that the private sector has made.”

Carroll says that developers are attracted to rail-based transit more-so than bus-based transit for very specific reasons.

“The three words we associate with the streetcar are permanence, commitment and catalyst,” he said. “Having the lines laid and concrete poured meant that it’s not going to change. The community has said that this route is what we’re going to do, and it did what it was supposed to do; get private developers to make their investments.”

If any of this information is giving you a sense of deja vu, it’s for a good reason. The Columbus Metropolitan Club hosted Robert Liberty from the Portland Metro Council in 2010, who spoke to local crowds then about regional governance, and transportation systems played a large role in that conversation as well.

So how many more Portland experts need to be brought to Columbus before we start taking rail-based transit seriously again?

“It’s not so much Portland coming to Columbus, it’s also about Columbus coming to Portland,” laughed Carroll. “I’ve hosted over 84 visits in my offices from city leaders around the country, and I advise everyone to talk to the small business owners in Portland that set up along the Streetcar line and why they chose those locations. That’s where you’ll find the real experts.”

For more information about the Columbus Metropolitan Club luncheon, visit www.columbusmetroclub.org.

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  • bjones7

    Now I realize many say that Columbus was recession proof in 2008, but it was still the worst possible time for Columbus to introduce a streetcar system. I believe a streetcar system should be looked into but I’m sure it will be a real head ache. ShortNorth/Downtown has been rapidly evolving on the High Street Corridor since 2009. It would take so much more money to plan and construct a street car system(not because of inflation). I’m willing to bet Columbus will see Light Rail or Commuter Rail (or even High speed rail) before a Street Car System.

    On a personal note, if Columbus did have a street car system they would be smart to bring back replica’s of street cars from the late/early 19th/20th century versus these new looking street cars. It would bring more “zest” to Columbus’s streetcar system.

  • MichaelC

    The CBUS circulator may be the perfect antecedent to a streetcar.

    But BJones makes a good point re: cost.

    One would hope these two possibilities–pipe dreams though they may yet be–are not mutually exclusive. Light rail connecting Downtown to the Airport could deliver folks to our streetcar, so they can get around town quickly and conveniently.

    The rebuttal, among others, will be: Why do we need a streetcar when CBUS is working just fine?

  • I work in Grandview but live in Olde Towne East. I would LOVE it if there was a simple public transit option that could get me close to work without a car. I can ride a bike, but it takes longer and not an option for me if it’s raining or I have to get to my boys. A way to connect the outer neighborhoods (Olde Towne, Short North, German Village, Grandview) to Downtown would be great!

    • I live on the Near East Side as well and have taken COTA to Grandview. It’s not that hard, and requires a transfer, but a pleasant ride. If you’re looking for an option faster than a car, or something that offers the flexibility to pick up kids on the way, then your expectations might be set too high. The tradeoffs are different and include some benefits (not driving, relaxing on your route, possibly cheaper than driving) but speed is likely not going to be one of the factors for that kind of commute.

      Otherwise, it’s always been my experience that COTA does a pretty good job connecting the inner-ring neighborhoods to Downtown with plenty of high-frequency routes running straight Downtown from all areas. If you’re only riding 1-2 miles and your destination is Downtown, COTA is fast, cheap and easy. If you’re going further than that, or need to make a transfer to elsewhere, the hassle and time commitment can jump up considerably.

      • I find navigating COTA to be a pain. I’m not looking for speed and on days where I think I have to get my kids, I’d drive. I really just don’t like spending $4/gallon for gas! It’s not intuitive and a bus pass is still expensive at least it was when I was looking at it for my nephew. I would like another option than COTA and street cars or light rail would work.

        • Have you tried using Google Transit to figure out your COTA route? Plug in point A and point B and you’re ready to roll:


          Even easier with the app/phone version. Point A is determined by your GPS. So just say where you want to go and it will tell you what bus to take at what time.

    • superglue

      Hey i live in OTE as well and commute to Grandview all the time. Its one of my favorite rides! Just take time to read the schedule and hop on. You will be pleasently suprised at how quick and efficient COTA is. COTA isnt as unreliable as people make it out to be AT ALL.

      Any way, im all for street cars but i do wonder would it be a waste of money with the CBUS already circulating. Im still praying for light rail.

  • run214

    This is very exciting news and I’ll admit that the idea of a streetcar was brought to voters at a really terrible point in time prior to the recession. What I will admit is that I struggle with cities across the country citing Portland’s streetcar as an answer to all of their woes. One thing that is not mentioned in this article is Portland’s urban growth boundary which was adopted in the late seventies as a way of preventing further development of farmland. Portland’s density and general hipness is was not born out of the streetcar, the streetcar didn’t create a dense, walkable, livable downtown area initially; it was born out of necessity. Different from the climate here in Columbus or in so many other cities across the country, developers didn’t have the option of overrunning Portland with stupid, unsustainable suburbs thirty minutes outside of the city. Density was created out of the political climate to some extent. The streetcar came later and took that existing climate and built on it.

    I would love to see Columbus build a streetcar, but it still seems to early on. Columbus doesn’t have a growth boundary and although suburban building has come to a grinding halt since the recession and the downtown is really making leaps and bounds I still think it too soon. Just within the last couple months has Columbus been afforded a circulator downtown by COTA, an operation that until recently was drastically underfunded because Columbus voters has no interest in it. I am not disputing the fact that a streetcar would have Columbus see even more growth, but one has to be careful. Memphis, Tampa, and a number of other cities have built streetcars citing Portland’s successes that do nothing other than look pretty – they consistently lose a tremendous amount of money annually. Let COTA do its thing for a while and see where Columbus is at in about 10 years. Capital expenditures for these rail systems are astronomical and in a state where the governor already gave back money to the feds for the construction of a regional rail system I believe it would be hard to sell the idea since Cincy struggled to get state funds too.

    I will admit though that it is nice to see that people have pulled this idea out of a drawer and are reconsidering it. I would just proceed with caution.

  • Mack741

    In my humble opinion, a streetcar line makes functional sense is if COTA traffic is moved off of the route, and on-street parking (particularly in downtown Columbus between 670 and 70) is reduced or removed completely.

    (Also, an investment in upgrading our ancient traffic light network so that it is far more efficient at moving traffic through the city is decades overdue – and probably should have a higher priority than a new streetcar system.)

    With cars, bike lanes, pedestrians, and a proposed new streetcar, that is more than enough competition for very limited space on High Street.

    If we were to still have normal COTA bus traffic, plus the line up of parked COTA buses in the city center for riders making transfers, plus the new CBUS line traffic, plus cars parked along High Street downtown (the worst decision the city has made in my 13 years living in downtown Columbus), plus all of the cars, bikes, pedestrians, and a new streetcar all attempting to use High Street simultaneously what we will have is a giant useless cluster****.

    From my vantage point as a resident of Brewery District I am already seeing folks adopting the brand new CBUS route and I believe it is bringing visitors to the area (and their dollars) that might not be there otherwise. So, an even more convenient, differentiated quality rider experience via a streetcar or some form of light rail I think would be welcomed.

    That said, the CBUS experience itself, in my limited experience (one ride, on a Saturday afternoon, the week before last) is not differentiated in any meaningful way (other than being free for now) versus COTA. In fact, it was disappointing. There does not seem to be consistency in terms of how often one can expect a CBUS to arrive at a stop. The driver of my CBUS did not seem to be concerned with getting passengers from point A to point B as quickly and efficiently as possible – to the contrary, he literally stopped the CBUS I was in beside each and every of the ten or so COTA buses lined up between Broad and State Street to wave at his fellow drivers.

    If we were to have a streetcar, and/or some form of light rail, it must be efficient, fast, clean, reasonably inexpensive, and go places someone like me wants to go.

    I think a streetcar and/or light rail project should and could probably be financed by issuance of municipal bonds backed in part by the revenue generated by rider fees. (Some new hotel, restaurant, or even another small increase in sales taxes would not be terrible, but attempting to finance this with new property or income taxes, would be fairly unpalatable.)

  • Columbusrules

    Development occurs where there is infrastructure.

    All I can say – don’t forget us west-sider’s! Hopefully to the ODOT building on W. Broad St. (HUGE parking lot for suburbanites looking for ‘park n’ ride’ options. (Personally, I would prefer stuff down to Hague/Wilson ;)

  • ehill27

    ^^ FYI- The traffic light network is already underway.

    • Mack741


  • ehill27
  • urbanenthusiast

    I’ve been touting city rail service in Columbus since my initial return to the city in 1997. At that point in my life, I had already lived car free in Boston (7 years) and San Francisco (5 years). I lived within the Market Street corridor in San Francisco during the laying of rail tracks from the Embarcadero to Castro Street. It was relatively quick and ridership along the original #8 BUS quadrupled. There is and always will be a stigma associated with bus service. RAIL does perform better.
    For much of the past decade, I have been living in both New York City and Columbus. I live car free in New York and with car in Columbus. Although I would like to be car free here, I cannot. (especially because of lack of reliable, public transit to the airport AND regional/national rail service.
    Is is true that Columbus would have the HIGH STREET CORRIDOR trains running today if we had elected Strickland instead of Kasich? Did the funds that Kasich refused include money for rail transit in Columbus?

    • chaserdanger

      well it shows you’ve done your research well. The High Street Corridor had nothing to do with Kasich/Strickland. The funds Kasich gave back to the feds was for the 3c which would have connected Cleveland to Cincinnati via Columbus.

      The city scrapped the plan for the High Street Corridor before Kasich was even elected because the city was broke at the time and couldn’t keep raising funds for it (2008, midst of the recession).

      Possibly, if trains were running from the three C cities, it’d make sense that the High Street Corridor would connect to a station, but blatantly blaming Kasich is ignorant.

      AND Im on the side of mass transit. I used to COTA to work every day back and forth so Im a staunch mass transit advocate. Im just saying, throwing in random political sentiment that is wrong is just not constructive to conversation.

  • run214

    Yes, I will agree that there is terrible stigma associated with riding the bus in this country, that it is reserved for those that are unable able to afford cars. Terrible, because it is far less costly than laying tracks and running trains. It is also far more effective in so far as one can run a bus anywhere in the city, trains are obviously confined to those areas with track. But that is neither here nor there.

    All of the cities you’ve mentioned are cities one can successfully navigate without a car and the rail systems work better there because of the dense nature of the area. Boston, San Francisco, and New York are three of the densest cities in the country – Columbus, as I know you’re well aware, is not.

    My only point in mentioning Kasich’s return of the funds was the general stance on rail in this state. That perhaps one could extrapolate from that that funds allocated to rail, whether inter or intra-urban would be difficult to obtain. Would Strickland have done things differently? I cannot say.

    Could there be a way to make riding buses in Columbus sexier? New Yorkers do it all the time, riding the MTA has little stigma attached to it. No more than riding the subway right? Could Cbus change the way its resident perceive COTA?

    I won’t dispute the fact that riding a train is far more appealing than riding a bus, I just wonder if the enormous capital expenditures can be held off until Columbus has really established itself as a city that utilizes public transit.

  • urbanenthusiast

    The bus stigma I am referring to has nothing to do with who is riding the bus or can afford a car. It has to do with BUS travel, period.
    The HIGH STREET corridor is well populated to support rail from WORTHINGTON to MERION VILLAGE.
    There are too many arguments supporting the financial impact on the community to say we aren’t ready.
    Move out of the way or move to Lancaster. Lol.

  • Geno99

    Did you know that a streetcar used to run up to Marble Cliffs? You can still see the boulevard where the streetcar turned around on Cambridge Blvd.

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