U of L grad pushes streetcar plan as Louisville seeks new transit ideas
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Porter Stevens doesn't have funding, exhaustive studies, or a well-known advocate, but he does have an idea that has worked before.
A streetcar line.
It's been 66 years since the last streetcar carried passengers in Louisville, but Stevens is pushing to revitalize the old-fashioned transit mode.
The 24-year-old former University of Louisville graduate student calls his proposal “An Old Way Forward.” He suggests a streetcar line running between Churchill Downs and the Ohio River along Fourth Street would connect disparate neighborhoods like downtown Louisville and U of L's Belknap campus.
For more than a decade, Louisville's transportation spending has focused on building new interstate highways and bridges. But improved public transit was the most popular idea Louisvillians submitted as part of a project envisioning the face of Louisville a generation from now.
Stevens is working to have the streetcar proposal included in an offshoot of that initiative -- Move Louisville, a project meant to shape the future of the city's transportation spending.
Over the summer, city officials accepted proposals for new transit plans and compiled them in a list. The list was published on the Move Louisville website and the public is now asked to give feedback on them. The public comment period extends until Dec 15 and you can find the ideas being considered here.
“We think that streetcars have the potential to be good for the city,” Stevens said. “But there is a lot more information we need before we know for sure.”
Stevens' idea grew out of his Master's in Urban Planning studies at U of L, which called on the students to build a new identity for the Fourth Street Corridor running from the river to Churchill Downs.
The corridor was the subject of an informal study by the Urban Land Institute in 2013 that mentioned the long-term prospect of building some form of premium transit like a streetcar.
“After the class ended, I decided to continue exploring the idea,” Stevens said via email. “I built a website, started a Facebook group, and started to write articles/blog posts advocating for the proposal.”
“I think a focused form of transportation through Old Louisville would be great,” Metro Council member David James said of the idea.
He mentioned working with the Speed Museum director Ghislain d'Humieres on an idea for a ‘cultural loop' bus -- a loop route that would run past major attractions like the Speed Museum, Churchill Downs and Museum Row on Main Street.
“I see it as economic development for the area and city,” James said of public transportation projects. “We want Old Louisville to be a destination with destination locations. So having some form of transportation would be awesome.”
James said the concept has been discussed with TARC in the past. “Their idea was not necessarily a streetcar, but maybe a ‘super bus' that would run on regular tires and would have a dedicated lane.”
“That whole corridor of Fourth Street through the urban services district is ripe for some great economic development and great opportunities for living,” James added.
If other cities are any indication, a streetcar line in Louisville running between downtown and the University of Louisville's campus could spur economic growth.
Cities considering streetcar investment frequently cite the success of a similar line installed in Portland, Oregon.
A 2005 review of the Portland Streetcar Investment found that it had “become the centerpiece of a significant shift in the density and location of new development within Portland‘s Central Business District.”
The study showed properties along the streetcar line experienced successful urban development. According to the study by E.D. Hovee & Company, “55% of all new development within the CBD (Central Business District) has occurred within one block of the streetcar.”
After the success of the Portland Streetcar, the U.S. Department of Transportation offered incentives for cities to develop infrastructure like rail lines and streetcars.
"We're sort of going back to the future," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told USA Today in 2010. "People...want to get out of congestion, they want a comfortable ride. They want it to be something they can afford. Buses provide that, but streetcars take people back to a time when you can really connect communities."
Millennials -- those born between the early 80's and the early 00's -- could be central to the push for improved public transit. A recent study by the American Public Transportation Association found “Millennials are multi-modal, they choose the best transportation mode (driving, transit, bike, or walk) based on the trip they are planning to take.”
In the summary, called Understanding the Millennial Mindset, findings indicated “Communities that attract Millennials have a multitude of transportation choices.”
It shows that young people looking for places to live want to be able to choose the most practical method of getting around and efficient public transportation options provide them with greater freedom.
As Stevens attempts to gain support for a streetcar line in Louisville, TARC is looking at faster buses with fewer stops, dedicated bus lanes and has even considered rail projects on north-south corridors. Barry Barker, the transit agency's executive director, said streetcars are just another design opportunity.
“I would love to look at these sorts of projects,” Barker said, adding that more research would need to be done on a streetcar proposal.
More than a decade ago, TARC was part of a proposed light rail project that would have run from the downtown hospital area through Smoketown and U of L on its way to Louisville International Airport.
That project ultimately stalled because of funding difficulties. “The hang-up was local match [of funds],” said Barker.
He said a streetcar, or any similar project, would require enough local funding to match federal grants, which he said Mayor Greg Fischer's local option sales tax plan could help secure.
Renovation projects in the city's Portland neighborhood over the summer revealed long-buried streetcar tracks that some have suggested could be renovated for future use.
Barker said years of salt treatments on the road can affect the tracks and to use them the city would have to dig a large hole in the middle of the street, which would cause problems for traffic flow.
Essentially, it's not clear if it would be viable. “Some people have used old track successfully, but this stuff has been under the street for forty or fifty years,” he said.
But the fact that these ideas are out there is encouraging to Stevens, TARC and the people behind Move Louisville. They all agree on the concept of community-driven or need-based projects, and grassroots movements are nothing new to Louisville.
The idea of removing I-64 from the waterfront started with local businessmen Tyler Allen and JC Stites. The 8664 movement was founded in 2005 as an alternative to the Ohio River Bridges Project. It garnered wide community support and eventually led to an unsuccessful campaign for Mayor by Tyler Allen.
But the streetcar plan is just one of many ideas being considered for Move Louisville.
Patti Clare, with Move Louisville, said the project panel has considered more than 800 ideas spanning all forms of public transit. Organizers accepted public input at workshops through the winter, spring and summer in 2014, and the project moved into its final phase this fall.
The ideas will now be scored based on their compatibility with the project's goals, weighed against public comments, and then considered for fiscal feasibility.
Stevens estimates his concept could cost around $70-80 million, which is based on the average cost of $12-15 million per mile. The proposed system would stretch about five and a half miles. But that cost isn't guaranteed to be the case in any given scenario.
Besides pushing for the project's inclusion in Move Louisville, he's also lobbying community investors and business leaders. A “street team" will attempt to create a grassroots movement to disseminate information about the proposal and the benefits of premium public transit along the planned route.
Stevens admits there are a lot of unanswered questions in his proposal. How exactly it would affect the street and what kind of return on investment it would bring are just a few of the questions that are brought up.
“These are questions that can only be answered by a formal feasibility study, and ONLY when they are answered with definitely favorable results should we seriously consider building a streetcar,” he said.
Stevens will host an event to gather streetcar supporters and showcase his idea at the Granville Inn on Dec. 18 at 7 p.m.
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Louisville Railway streetcar photo by Jay Galvin via FLICKR.