In the timeline of major projects that reshape cities, two years is usually a mere blip. People’s attitudes have to change, and politicians have to come around to the idea that, for once, leaving things as they are is not the safest route to re-election. Bureaucratic machinery shifts gears, various pockets must be searched for money.Two years ago, the notion of modern streetcars was barely on the radar screen in Cowtown. The Fort Worth Transportation Authority didn’t want to touch it. Mayor Mike Moncrief showed little interest in any mass transit system, citing costs and his perception that Fort Worth citizens wouldn’t support it.
Not that improving public mass transit was completely off the agenda. But regional leaders wanted to put their muscle behind commuter lines between the big cities or cities and airports, not some short lines that would just move people around within Fort Worth’s central city. How could a modern streetcar that ran about three miles from the Cultural District to downtown have any real effect on packed freeways and air quality? Why would anyone park their cars and use such a system?
But since then, the climate for such a system has changed dramatically. The Fort Worth City Council appointed a Modern Streetcar Study Committee, which has been meeting for the past six months. Moncrief, most council members, and dozens of business leaders and city staffers made a trip to the Pacific Northwest in October to study how cities like Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland have implemented modern streetcar routes.
They liked what they saw, and now, shazaam! It seems that they’re ready to act. The committee’s finding: “[A] streetcar system is desirable for Fort Worth.” Next week, the panel is due to present its final report to the city council, recommending where the streetcars would travel and how they could be paid for. There seems to be little opposition on the council; in fact, the only disagreement has been among council members fighting for a line in their districts.
According to several sources, Moncrief is on board with the plan. Newly elected councilman Joel Burns and councilman Sal Espino met with Moncrief in February to persuade the mayor that Fort Worth needs this streetcar system. Moncrief was open to the idea, Burns said, and was so impressed with the streetcar systems in the Northwest that he has indicated he wants the streetcar system to have a high priority in Fort Worth. As usual, Moncrief didn’t return calls from Fort Worth Weekly asking for comment.
So how did Cowtown go from having virtually no interest in any kind of mass transit to “we have to do this as soon as possible”? There are a number of factors at play: gas prices, more urban infill development, air quality issues, and a growing willingness by the public to leave their cars at home if offered the right mass transit options.
But another factor is much bigger, and that’s Fort Worth’s penchant for doing what real estate developers want. A decade ago, most developers wanted no mass transit near their properties. Their reasoning was simple and unspoken: Mass transit was a poor people’s thing.
“There was always a perception in Fort Worth that all the designs for development had to [give primary consideration to] the needs of the car,” with “parking at the front door,” said Fran McCarthy, a member of the streetcar committee and a developer who works mostly in the Hospital District.
“But the city was doing more and more high-density developments, mostly in the Hospital and Cultural districts,” he said. “The developers of those projects knew that we had to find more efficient ways to move people around within the city. Our problem always was public perception. People had no idea what the mass transit options were, because they had no experience with it.”
A group of developers, including McCarthy; Phillip Poole, who works mostly in the Hospital and Cultural districts; and Tom Struhs, whose recent projects have helped transform the Samuels Avenue neighborhood, started working to change those perceptions. A Fort Worth Weekly cover story in May 2006 apparently helped as well. The article, “Late at the Station,” examined why Fort Worth had such a bad mass transit system compared to other cities of similar size. One example used in the story was the short modern streetcar line in Portland, which had spawned more than $3 billion in economic development since 2001.
“After the Weekly story ran, a lot of business leaders started talking about how we might take a run at developing some urban mass transit options again,” said Don Scott, another leader of the group, who was then president of the nonprofit Fort Worth South Inc. and is now on the streetcar committee. Scott explained that the city had done studies on light rail lines in 1998 and 2002, but they fell off the drawing board because the city did not have the high-density areas needed to support such a plan.
“But so many things had changed since those studies were done,” Scott said. “The business community began to see this was something the city needed on so many different levels. Our challenge was to find ways to convince the political leadership and the general public that this was something they needed to invest in.”
How did they do all that convincing? They made an end run around the city council’s disinterest, by pushing the issue with a downtown redevelopment committee.
The group used the Central City Redevelopment Committee to make their case. The council-appointed committee is usually involved only in making sure that downtown keeps growing. But about two years ago, they began putting the streetcar question on the agenda of the panel’s monthly meetings.
In October 2007, the streetcar advocates took their ideas to the city council. In January the committee released a proposal suggesting that Fort Worth needed a modern streetcar system – but it wasn’t just a typewritten report. It was a 20-page glossy “white paper,” with color photos and graphs, and they distributed it to businesses and political leaders throughout the city. Shortly after that, the council appointed the streetcar committee. Then in October came the Pacific Northwest road trip, partially funded by the Fort Worth Real Estate Council.
There was a lot of quiet lobbying behind the scenes, and the group produced materials not done by or endorsed by the city council or city staff. In the beginning, the council and downtown business interests, such as Sundance Square Inc., were wary.
Many downtown leaders feared that streetcars sharing the roadways with cars would worsen traffic problems rather than reducing them. They wondered if a streetcar system might take away parking revenues. And the city was facing financial shortfalls, so a multi-million-dollar modern streetcar system seemed unlikely to be approved.
The council asked the streetcar committee to propose the route for one starter line. But the panel came up with three: one running from downtown to the Hospital District, another to the Cultural District, and a third that would make a loop within downtown. Future lines might run to the Stockyards and out to Texas Wesleyan University along East Rosedale Street. The panel is proposing that the system be funded from a mix of sources, mostly existing tax-increment-financing districts, but also with some state and federal funding and an expansion of another taxing mechanism called public improvement districts.
Panel leaders and several council members believe the question now is not if but when the streetcar proposal will be approved and how quickly the system could be built. If the city council approves the committee’s recommendations early next year, construction could begin within a year or two, and a line could be built and running within three to five years. And two years ago, no one could have imagined that happening.
If a rail system really is in Fort Worth’s near future, it’s probably time to get a few terms straight.
Commuter rail is run on freight lines, like the Trinity Railway Express between Fort Worth and Dallas. The lines move commuters over long distances quickly, but usually have little development potential at the rail stops, in part because, following the freight lines, most stops are in old industrial areas.
Another option is light rail, like the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) system. For the most part, light rail runs on its own right-of-way, often paralleling freeway lines. The trains aren’t as fast as commuter freight rail lines, and they have more stops. Costs are quite high, but development around the stops, as with Dallas’ Mockingbird Station, is usually one of the payoffs.
Modern streetcars, used for the most part in high-density areas, are the shortest of rides, with stops every few blocks. Streetcars are known to be “pedestrian facilitators,” meaning they attract riders who live within walking distance of the routes. And if the riders are using the streetcars to get to a part of town with restaurants or theaters, they are generally willing to walk a few blocks on the other end of the ride as well. Such systems typically are not used to go across town but to link “urban village” dwellers and users with other high-density developments, including downtown areas.
The Fort Worth committee has avoided using the term “trolley” because of the potential confusion with cars used more than 50 years ago. Modern streetcar systems differ from old-fashioned trolleys or streetcars in that they hold more riders and provide easier access from the street. “Historic” streetcars are used in some cities, including vintage cars like the McKinney Avenue line in Dallas. And new streetcars will have nothing to do with the trolley-looking buses that Fort Worth uses to take tourists from downtown to the Stockyards.
If the streetcar proposal goes forward, Fort Worth is going to use modern cars, made mostly in Europe, which can accommodate 100 to 150 passengers standing and sitting. The cars are low to the ground, providing easy access for riders getting on and off, especially handicapped patrons.
Why not just expand the bus system, especially if the buses already run on the same routes as the proposed streetcars? Many critics have argued that these urban rail lines are merely mass transit geared toward wealthier people, and that they will steal funding from cheap bus systems that serve those who cannot afford cars.
“Categorically, it is silly,” said Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, an Austin-based government watchdog group. “Buses are a much more efficient way to move people around. But they aren’t sexy and cool like streetcars, so we waste hundreds of millions of dollars to appeal to the latte crowd.”
“If the City of Fort Worth wants to improve their mass transit system, then take the amount of money they are going to spend on streetcars and use it to build a better bus system,” Sullivan said.
But experience in other cities has shown that people from all economic strata generally prefer using some form of rail over buses, even along the same route. Tacoma started a 1.3-mile modern streetcar line in 2003. A bus that had run that route prior to the streetcar line carried 200,000 passengers a year. The annual ridership on the streetcar last year was 900,000.
The difference is what is known as “choice riders,” an unfortunate term that is often misconstrued. The term doesn’t refer to choice as in “preferred” (or as in yuppiefied folks who use streetcars to get to hip entertainment venues) but as in those who have a choice. Choice riders are those who have cars but opt to leave them at home and ride mass transit, not only to go to clubs or the theater but to get to and from work and to do the shopping. For whatever reason, most such riders will leave their cars at home for a rail car, but not so much for buses.
“I just think it is largely psychological,” said Fort Worth Assistant City Manager Fernando Costa, who has overseen the city staff’s work with the streetcar committee. “But the studies are indisputable. What will make streetcar lines work in Fort Worth is a growing awareness by public officials and business leaders and ordinary citizens that it makes sense to pursue alternatives to automobile transportation. Commuter rail and streetcars together represent a good way to move people from one point to another, but also [are] a good way to promote economic development within the city.”
Commuter rail costs about $3 million to $25 million per mile to get up and running. Light rail like the DART system comes in at $20 million to $60 million per mile. Modern streetcars cost anywhere from $10 million to $40 million per mile. Where Fort Worth will go for that money is still up for debate.
The city staff figures the cost of the Fort Worth system on the high side, averaging $40 million per mile. But with more than 60 cities in the U.S. pursuing streetcar systems (both modern and historic), those costs could come down. And Fort Worth and Dallas – which is also planning some streetcar lines to link downtown with close-in developments like Victory Park – have begun talks about combining their design expenses and car purchases to save some money.
Costs of the system could also be cut hugely by using single-track rail lines instead of double-track lines. The current plan is to use double tracks on all but the downtown loop and small sections of the east and south lines. Double-track streetcars systems have lines running in opposite directions on the same street. Single-track design puts one line on each street, used alternately by cars going both directions. A center-point stop with a short double track allows the cars to pass each other.
But there are some problems with the single-track design. If streetcars share the roadway with automobiles, they cannot run against traffic. Thus they must either have their own lane on the road separated from the traffic (by a high curb), or they run down the center, which makes access for passengers more difficult.
The proposed line to the Cultural District would run along West 7th Street, then turn south on Montgomery Street and east on Lancaster Avenue, passing by the Will Rogers Memorial Center and the art museums. From Lancaster it would run north on Currie Street, then back into downtown via West 7th. Expected riders would be the new residents moving into the big West 7th developments, plus patrons of the new entertainment venues within those developments and tourists going to the museums. You’d even be able to take a streetcar to Fred’s Texas Café for a burger and a beer.
The Hospital District line would leave downtown on South Main Street and then go west on Magnolia Avenue. The streetcars would travel north on 7th Avenue to link up with hospitals in that area, then turn around and take the same route back to downtown. The target ridership would be Near Southside residents who work downtown and downtown denizens who work on the South Side, plus hospital workers and those frequenting the growing restaurant and entertainment district along Magnolia.
The exact route of the inside-downtown loop has not been drawn, but it would connect the county courthouse complex with Lancaster Avenue on the southern end of downtown. The streetcar would go north on either Commerce or Calhoun street, and south along Houston or Throckmorton street. Current plans don’t call for it to connect directly with the Intermodal Transportation Center, where The T’s buses, the TRE commuter rail line, and Amtrak all stop. And that’s causing some controversy.
“Isn’t it desirable for TRE, the planned northeast-to-southwest commuter line, Fort Worth buses, and intercity bus lines to be able to connect their passengers with the streetcar lines?” asked Pete Charlton, a Fort Worth historic map dealer who has been following the streetcar proposals closely. He also refers to the downtown streetcar circulator as “sort of useless.”
The committee is recommending that the system be paid for with a combination of federal and state grants and the city’s Barnett Shale money, but the lion’s share would come from property owners closest to the lines. That’s where the infighting will come. Some of the big developers who would benefit most from the streetcar system don’t mind paying some of the cost, but others are still skeptical.
Anyone who’s paid attention to fat-cat funding mechanisms in Fort Worth in the last decade or so has probably heard of TIFs – the tax-increment-financing districts that the city uses to allow developers and landowners in certain areas to keep part of their property tax payments for use specifically in their neighborhoods. The streetcar committee wants to use TIFs to help pay for Fort Worth’s inner-city rail lines, as well as another taxing tool that goes by another acronym: PIDs, or public improvement districts.
In a TIF, as property values rise beyond a certain benchmark, the resulting additional tax dollars are used for various projects within the district rather than going into the city’s general fund. In a PID, the general city tax rate is actually raised, by agreement of the property owners involved, and the extra tax dollars are again kept within the district.
City staffers estimate that $75 million in streetcar money could come from TIFs already set up downtown and on the Near South Side.
There is also an existing PID downtown. Under the streetcar plan, new PIDs – or two new sections of the existing one – would be created in the Hospital District and along the West 7th Street line. Currently, PIDs in Fort Worth add a maximum of 10 cents per $100 in valuation to property tax bills. The plan is to raise that cap to 14 cents and to draw the streetcar PIDs to include property within 750 to 1,000 feet of the lines. Owners of at least half the property, based on value, must agree to the tax increase. City staffers estimate that a total of $14 million could be raised that way.
Larger property owners therefore have more sway in the decision. Along West 7th Street, the big developments with the highest property values seem to be mostly on board with the extra 14 cents. According to Museum Place CFO Reece Pettigrew, the development firm “has had the plans for the streetcar project from the beginning, and we would support a funding plan that would be fair to all the property owners along West 7th Street.” Higher property tax bills could be paid through increases in rental and lease rates.
Montgomery Plaza owners are resisting at this point, according to sources. And Ken Hughes, developer of the South of Seven mixed-use properties along West 7th Street, is taking the wait-and-see approach.
“I’m in favor of the streetcar system, but it is too early for me to respond to any proposal with respect to financial matters,” Hughes said. “It’s a good idea, and if it is properly done and routed correctly, it would be of great use to the city. But oftentimes fixed rail is laid out politically and not with the best interests of the city.”
Owners of Cypress Equities, developer of the West 7th mixed-use project, are also withholding judgment. “We are thrilled that the committee chose to run the line through our property, and it would be very beneficial to our users and tenants and people who will live here,” said Kirk Williams, vice president of development. “But you can only pass so much of a property tax increase to your tenants, especially in this economy. But I would say we are very open for discussions at this stage.”
Hughes sees the economic benefit of the streetcar lines, in part because he has done developments along DART lines in Dallas. But like Pete Charlton and many others, he also sees at least one sizable problem with the downtown part of the plan.
“If you don’t hook up directly with the [Intermodal Transportation Center], you will have less connection with the other transportation options,” Hughes said. “And to have those east and west lines connecting to the loop will make trips longer and less convenient.”
What he’s talking about is the part of the current plan that would require anyone trying to go from one streetcar line to the other – say, Southside residents who want to take in a museum exhibit – to do a partial loop of downtown in order to make that connection. Downtown business leaders on the committee pressed for that arrangement so that commuters from the near West and South sides could be dropped off close to work without changing streetcars or getting on a connecting bus.
The business leaders, including Sundance Square Inc.’s CEO Johnny Campbell, argued that having the eastern part of the downtown loop run along Jones Street, where the ITC is, would offer less economic development potential than putting it on Commerce or Calhoun streets.
Those arguments do have some merit, but Hughes also has a valid point about travel time. A rider getting on a streetcar near the Fort Worth Convention Center or the new Omni Hotel to go to the Cultural District would have to travel north to the courthouse, then back south for several blocks before heading west.
“It doesn’t make sense to have any of these lines veering into that loop for any reason,” Hughes said. “Let’s say I take the TRE from Dallas and want to go to the West Side to the museums or to look in on my business over there. What I would want to do is get off the TRE at the Intermodal Center, transfer to the train going west, and go straight there.”
Dana Burghdoff, deputy director of planning for the city and one of the lead staff members advising the streetcar committee, said the downtown plans are preliminary and subject to tweaking.
“As far as not hooking up directly with the ITC, the experience we had in Seattle and Portland was that people had no problem walking a block or two if there was good signage instructing them where to go to make their transfer,” she said. “But we are going to study the schematic design with consultants if council wants us to move forward, and they will tell us what part of our plan works well and what needs to be changed.”
Charlton agrees with Hughes about the downtown part of the plan. “We all know this is about economic development and using mass transit for that purpose,” he said. “But if you do not have the lines run to the Intermodal, you are taking mass transit out of the equation.”
The mad rush for cities to get into modern streetcar lines began in Portland in the late ’90s. Prior to that time, cities had heritage trolleys – rail cars that looked like they did 75 years ago, used mainly by tourists. Portland leaders decided that a line from the Pearl District, an area of abandoned warehouses and factories, into the downtown area two miles away would boost economic development. They chose the modern streetcars like those used in Europe to reflect the style of the people who might choose to live in the new urban housing they expected in the Pearl District.
By all accounts, the economic boost in Portland has been huge. According to studies done by the city, $3.5 billion in development has occurred since 1997 along the route, with 7,248 new housing units constructed. By 2010, an additional 3,000 housing units will be completed.
“It was all about doing it as fast as we could,” said Rick Gustafson, executive director of the private nonprofit group that built and runs the Portland line. “We knew that if we waited, costs would just continue to go up. The approach we used was to build it as far as the money would take us, then get more money and build some more. And it was all local money to start with, because we found out that waiting for federal money can take a long time.”
Around the time Portland was starting its system, the Federal Transit Administration announced it would help with such projects through its “New Starts” and “Small Starts” programs. But under the Bush administration, the criteria used to judge whether the federal grants would go to a city streetcar system changed dramatically.
“Cities saw what was happening in Portland and the new grants from Washington, and they figured they could get in,” said Gloria Ohland, a senior vice president for Reconnecting America, a California-based nonprofit that promotes urban-rail mass transit. “But the Bush administration put the emphasis on funding projects that serve suburban commuters, mostly those on freight rail lines, and for express buses.”
Last year, the FTA funded 13 projects for its Small Starts program, and 12 were bus systems. “It’s as if they are ignoring the needs of people who live in urban areas,” Ohland said. “Urban streetcar systems are the exact opposite of the suburban transportation issues.”
Changes in Congress may bring the FTA around to funding projects like the one in Fort Worth. But the transit experts suggest not waiting for that to happen. President-elect Barack Obama “will have a deeper understanding of urban policy than Bush did, and given that he has lived in an urban part of Chicago, he knows that landscape and needs of the people who live in places like that, so I expect changes to be made,” Ohland said. “But federal projects take so much longer, so it is better to get the buy-in from the business community, and you will get a better system and get it quicker.”
Indeed, Obama has announced a plan to build new transportation infrastructure – including mass transit programs – that will rival the interstate highway program of the 1950s. That means federal funding will likely be changing. “With all the talk in Washington, there will be big changes in the funding for transportation,” said Chad Edwards, a transportation planner for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “The timing of this for Fort Worth could be very positive.”
If encouraging economic development in depressed or slow-to-grow areas is a major reason for building a streetcar system, that raises an interesting question about the Fort Worth plan: Why run the system’s first line down West 7th Street, where huge mixed-use developments, either finished or under construction, have already eaten up most of the major plots of land?
“The [West 7th] corridor is a paradox,” Charlton wrote in a paper he posted online. “If the idea is to foster economic development, then considering its fantastic growth rate with only lowly bus service, it is hard to understand why anyone would want to add the cost and endure the construction of a streetcar line.”
The streetcar committee did consider the development issue extensively. The problem was that the places with the best chances to go from vacant land or blighted area to new development are too far away from the downtown hub for a starter route. For example, the committee considered a route that would run out East Rosedale Street to Texas Wesleyan University. But that line would add $100 million to the starter cost. The line might be included in future phases.
“Some of the choices made had to do with the layout of Fort Worth,” said Burghdoff. “In Portland and Seattle, they linked places that were very close to downtown. Here, even the Cultural District and Hospital District are much farther away than the places streetcars go to in those cities.”
Another reason for the choice: As Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns said at one of the committee meetings, the city’s first streetcar line of the modern era “has to be a home run.” And that means putting the line in an area that’s less risky development-wise and that can draw not only job commuters but also tourists and entertainment-venue patrons.
Council member Carter Burdette echoed Burns’ advice. “The first one must be successful, so that the public will embrace it and future lines might be possible,” he said in an interview with the Weekly.
The thinking is that the Cultural District’s combination of high-density development and tourist use – whether that involves the museums or the Fort Worth Stock Show – will get the West 7th Street line out of the gate with high ridership. The planned housing and retail developments on South Main Street, combined with big employment numbers in the Hospital District, should make that line a quick success, advocates hope.
A route going up North Main Street into the Stockyards would seemingly fit the criteria for a starter line: future housing, office and retail development within the Trinity River Vision project, underutilized property on North Main, and tourists going to the Stockyards. But road construction within TRV forced the committee to put the idea of a North Main streetcar on the back burner. A new bridge over the planned bypass channel won’t be finished until 2014, well outside the initial starter line timeframe.
If city council decides in January to go forward with the streetcar proposal, things could move fast. The money from the council of governments would be used to develop more accurate design plans and funding strategies. If the TIF and PID funding is approved by property owners and TIF and PID board members, the city would be able to float bonds to pay for the entire system. Once construction starts, a city block of modern streetcar tracks can be built in two weeks.
The streetcar committee figures that the first lines could be done mostly with local money. But with the new administration in Washington, and with Congress promising more funding for projects like this, the financial burden of future lines might be shifted more to federal shoulders.
One factor that might push the West Side line back a bit is the reconstruction of the West 7th Street bridge. City officials expect construction to begin in the middle of 2010 and to take about 10 months. So even if the bridge gets done on time, that line probably won’t be activated until 2012.
“We were all very impressed by what we saw in Seattle and Portland and Tacoma,” said council member Danny Scarth. “I think we came away from there realizing a system like this is one of the transportation solutions, as important as road construction and toll roads and commuter rail. I think it is interesting and worth looking at.”
Still, it’s not a done deal, Burdette said. “It is premature to say this will move full-steam ahead. There are some complicated issues at play. But it is very intriguing.”
What the city still needs to do, he said, “is to get some advice from experts on what will work here and what will not. Can we get a design that is worthwhile for Fort Worth, and can we figure out how to pay for it?”
The streetcar proposal will be the first major development issue to come before the council in years in which the automobile is not front and center.
“I think the main thing we are seeing here is that this city is growing up,” said Struhs. “Good mass transit happens in every other big city in the world, and it needs to happen here.” The streetcar system, he said, could mark “the beginning of people in this city thinking about transportation in ways that do not only center around the automobile.”