Editorial: Trolley follies

Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 at 2:41 p.m.

Electric streetcars used to be a major mode of transportation in cities across the U.S. Automobile, tire and oil companies aided their disappearance by buying and dismantling streetcar systems around the mid-20th century.

America's love affair with the automobile kicked into high gear around the same time. There's more than a little nostalgia in the idea that streetcars will now save us from clogged roadways, urban sprawl and other problems that our car-centered culture has brought us.

Streetcars, or trolleys as they're sometimes called, are today associated with a few large U.S. cities such as New Orleans and San Francisco. So it's a little surprising for Gainesville to be considering a streetcar system as part of its long-term transportation planning. While there are examples of similarly sized cities with streetcars, several are tourist-centered systems operating on historic lines.

The City Commission tonight is considering awarding a contract for a $100,000 streetcar study as part of its consent agenda. The city is seeking another $1 million in federal funding for more study.

Gainesville is also seeking $38 million from the federal government to develop a bus rapid transit system. A streetcar might link to the system and act as a circulator bringing people between campus, downtown and the Innovation Square area.

The city's federal legislative agenda says the idea of a streetcar "is quickly gaining support from a diverse group of community stakeholders." That seems overstated, to say the least.

City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins has been a vocal proponent of a streetcar and has the support of other officials, but the public is hardly clamoring for the idea. Ed Poppell, head of the UF support organization developing Innovation Square, told The Sun that it remains to be seen whether a streetcar would be financially sustainable.

Early cost estimates for a Gainesville streetcar are $128 million for the infrastructure and $2 million to operate it annually, according to the city's legislative agenda. Kenosha, Wis., spent about $2 million per mile on its streetcar system but other examples are much higher such as Tampa spending about $13.7 million per mile, according to a website created for the American Public Transit Association's streetcar subcommittee.

Ed Braddy's strong showing in Tuesday's mayoral election can be seen as a sign of public dissatisfaction with City Hall. Braddy has been critical of bus rapid transit and Mayor Craig Lowe and other proponents have failed to articulate a compelling argument in support of the system.

As a transportation summit looms next month, it's imperative for them to do so or risk another transportation tax lacking the broad support required for passage. Pushing the idea of a streetcar just seems to be giving fodder to critics who want nothing substantial done in terms of public transit.

Gainesville is right to be planning to expand transit to address growth and make the city more competitive. A streetcar study doesn't mean such a system would be built and, even if one was, it might not happen for decades. For now, it seems like the wrong message during a time of fiscal uncertainty at the local and federal levels. The public would be better served if commissioners focused on more pressing priorities.

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