City delays vote on streetcar study

Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 5:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 5:26 p.m.

The Gainesville City Commission on Thursday delayed a vote to spend as much as $100,000 to begin studying a potential downtown streetcar system.

With five of the seven members present Thursday, the commission voted 4-1 to delay the decision until its April 18 meeting.

Mayor Craig Lowe, who was arrested in the early morning on DUI charges, and Commissioner Randy Wells were absent Thursday.

Early talks have focused on a streetcar or “urban circulator” system linking UF, Shands at UF, the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center, Innovation Square, downtown and the Power District. If eventually developed, the system could include electric vehicles operating on steel rails that run down existing streets or they could involve a shuttle bus.

The early cost projection is $128 million for infrastructure and annual operating costs of $2 million. Besides the $100,000 commissioners might spend on a conceptual study for the system, the city also is seeking $1 million in federal money for future phases of the study.

The commissioners who voted Thursday to delay the decision wanted to get public input from a “transportation summit” the Alachua County Commission has scheduled for the Gainesville/Alachua County Senior Recreation Center on April 10. They also wanted all seven city commissioners present for the decision.

Prior to the decision to delay, a majority of the commissioners present appeared poised to postpone the streetcar study for at least several months. They discussed waiting for the completion of an ongoing study on a planned bus rapid transit system. That study will include the option of a streetcar system around Gainesville but not the detailed analysis of a downtown system, Regional Transit System Director Jesus Gomez said.

Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls also discussed putting the $100,000 instead toward improving the current bus service in east Gainesville.

Commissioners Lauren Poe and Thomas Hawkins favored moving ahead with the study Thursday but did not have the votes.

Poe said he did not know if he would eventually support the development of a system and wanted the information from the study to make an informed decision. The initial $100,000 study would be one step in a process lasting years, he said.

“Learning about anything costs money,” said Hawkins, an advocate for a street car or downtown circulator. “It takes time to do research.”

In response to Hinson-Rawls, Hawkins said that, during last year’s budget process, he supported funding the streetcar study and adding more money to improve service on existing RTS routes than the full commission eventually approved.

The $100,000 for the study is already allocated in this year’s budget.

Commissioner Todd Chase cast the dissenting vote Thursday. He said the city does not yet know whether property values will have a negative effect on next year’s budget or what the rate impact from the biomass plant will be.

Against that backdrop, he said the city should prioritize spending and it would send “incredibly the wrong signal” to spend $100,000 now on a system that likely will not be built for more than a decade, if ever.

Commissioner Susan Bottcher said she supported the eventual development of a streetcar or circulator system to ease congestion from future development, including the more than 5 million square feet planned in Innovation Square. But she questioned if the time was yet right to move ahead on a study.

Thursday’s vote would have authorized staff to enter contract negotiations with the highest-ranked bidder to conduct the study, the firm of Tindale-Oliver & Associates Inc.

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