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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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