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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Resurrecting the Huntsville Streetcar

With the news this past week that Huntsville is going forward with a $2.6 million tramway to nowhere that will probably serve only a few tourists a day and have no impact on the average citizen's commute, I thought I would indulge you with a little Huntsville transit history. Did you know that, for about 20 years, Huntsville had a mass transit system? And people actually used it?

  Early 1900s streetcar in downtown Huntsville. Source: Wikimedia/Huntsville-Madison County Public Library

From 1901 to 1931, Huntsville had two streetcars that connected Dallas Mill, Five Points, Downtown, and Merrimack. But sadly, like most streetcar systems in the US that existed in the early 20th Century, it folded because of the Great Depression (and the push led by "what's good for America" General Motors to acquire and replace streetcar lines with their buses, but that happened after Huntsville's line was gone).

Today, dozens of cities have built or are building streetcar lines once again. Some, like Little Rock and Memphis, have built New Orleans-style "heritage streetcar" lines that use refurbished streetcars from the early 20th Century. Other cities, like Portland, have constructed "modern streetcar" lines that are sleeker, more comfortable, and somewhat faster than the streetcars of old. Let's think for a minute about how, or if, the Huntsville Streetcar can be reborn in a city that's now 15 times the size it was when the line last operated. Here's my idea:

Full Map (click to enlarge)


Five Points (station placement example)

Fast Facts:
Length: 5.9 miles
Time: 25-30 minutes end-to-end
Frequency: every 10-20 minutes, seven days a week, from 6AM (8AM Saturdays and Sundays)-10PM (12AM Fridays and Saturdays)

Streetcars would run mostly in the inside lane of both directions of traffic. Since much of the route is on five-lane roads, two lanes would be used for streetcars, two lanes would remain exclusive to vehicular traffic, with bike lanes or widened sidewalks on each side and landscaped medians between platforms. Station platforms, 100 feet in length and spaced approximately 1/3 mile apart, would be put in between the tracks, accessible by pedestrian crosswalks at signalized intersections, and would have amenities like well-designed shelters that blend with the surrounding neighborhood, message boards showing the time until the next streetcar, and ticket vending machines.

Several of the stations would have park-and-ride lots. This would serve a double purpose of permitting denser, mixed-use transit-oriented development (TOD) in the immediate vicinity of the stations and freeing up surface parking in the CBD to be put to better use.

Note that the line would end at Gate 8 (Goss Road) at Redstone Arsenal. From there, riders could walk through the gate and enter the base, possibly transferring to a circulator bus. Streetcar line extensions could eventually be built along Church Street to the main bus terminal, Madison Street/Whitesburg and Governors to the Medical District/Lowe Mill, and Meridian Street to Lincoln Mill.


Streetcars are dangerous. Only if you're dumb enough to run into one. 99.9% of the time, streetcars stay in their lane, aren't subject to road rage, and go no faster than the speed limit. Imagine what a wonderful world it would be if car drivers were the same way (myself included).

Streetcars are costly. Not as expensive as your favorite highway, but yes, they are more expensive and less flexible than buses. Streetcars have lower maintenance costs and have a longer lifespan than their gas-powered counterparts, and they emit zero emissions. Streetcars bring more investment to surrounding neighborhoods, raising property values and the overall look, starting with the streets. Also of note: The Infrastructurist has 36 reasons streetcars are better than buses.

Huntsville is not dense enough to support any kind of rail transit. It's the "chicken or the egg" question of transit planning: What comes first: the transit or the density? If you build the transit infrastructure first, people might not ride it in large numbers, but TOD opportunities abound. But if you wait for an area to become "dense enough" for transit, you run the risk of the project becoming prohibitively expensive, such as in acquiring rights-of-way.

Why not put a streetcar line in Research Park? Nobody works downtown. A streetcar line in Research Park would be a tough sell considering that its streets aren't linear, and the opportunities for non-office transit oriented development would be few. The lack of a real residential component within Research Park (and commercial outside of Bridge Street) would make the streetcar effective only during daytime working hours. Why build a streetcar system if it's only effective for 9 hours a day, 5 days a week? Research Park needs better transit, but probably in the form of high-frequency circulator buses that run to University Drive and Bridge Street. Downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods have the right street pattern and the 24-hour population to support a streetcar line. And did you know that the Downtown/Medical District workforce tops 30,000, as much as both Research Parks combined? The residential population surrounding the line was at 25,000 in 2000, the latest data available for specific neighborhoods.

A Cheaper Alternative?

If the $30-50 million per mile cost of a streetcar line is too much to risk, let's first give Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) a try. It would run on the same capacity and infrastructure (minus the rails), but would be about half the cost. However, studies of redevelopment/TOD potential along BRT lines have been mostly inconclusive, as it is a relatively new technology in the United States. Eugene, Oregon, a city similar in size to Huntsville, built a 4-mile, $24 million BRT line three years ago. Another Huntsville-like city, Fort Collins, Colorado, is constructing an $80 million, 5 mile BRT route starting this year, which is eerily familiar to the idea I'm proposing. For more info, check out Fort Collins' Economic Analysis Report on the BRT route.

Should we build it, and if so, when will it happen?

The Huntsville urban streetcar/BRT line should be a long-range goal of a greater regional transit system, to get to "hard-to-reach" neighborhoods that might not be well-served by other modes of mass transit offered (except for fixed-route regular buses). Because of this, smooth connections should be made to any future bus and rail routes.


Dennis said...

The idea of a streetcar system really does make sense--especially if downtown is to be revived.

I agree about the spending of millions for a streetcar to nowhere doesn't make sense. What if that same money could be applied to a plan such as you recommend? That would be wonderful for this community and ease traffic on streets that are often too congested.

Anonymous said...

Mass Transit is a great idea and should be on a priority list. Shall we consider options other than street cars such as a monorail? Let's run the numbers to see what will be best for a solid and healthy growth in Huntsville

James said...

@Dennis:I definitely agree, but federal funding such as the $2.6 million for the tramway to nowhere (more of an express bus to nowhere) is reserved specifically for that project and cannot be moved. However, the appropriation doesn't have to be spent, and will expire after a certain amount of time.

Come to think of it, $2.6 million would go a long way in creating a plan for regional transit in this area. Heck, I'll do it myself with that kind of money.

@Anonymous:Monorail is a terrible idea anywhere, but even more so in this situation. This streetcar/BRT line would go through downtown and surrounding historic neighborhoods, and enhance the appeal of living in currently undesirable places such as West Clinton. Living next to an elevated highway is unappealing, so why would you want to live right next to an elevated monorail line? Monorails are also very expensive and have not been proven to be more than just a futuristic-looking way to get around Disney World. Las Vegas' monorail line just went bankrupt. Even liberal, transit-friendly Seattle killed a proposal for a monorail system a few years ago because of its prohibitive cost ($2 Billion plus interest).

Anonymous said...

The entire Dallas Mill area along with 5 Points would be ideal for this.With the upgrades to Meridian Street underway now would be the perfect time to install a line north to Oakwood. This would infuse development and residents and Lincoln School would not have to be closed. The 5 Points line could extend along Pratt and intersect with the Meridian line.

Jon said...

While a line to the Arsenal definitely makes sense, I'd also suggest a stop at UAH. As a UAH student that lives in Five Points, I'd definitely take the train versus driving if it was offered. However, that's not an option at the moment.

The other thing is that there are some transit options, but there is no timetable offered for these routes. I've taken the evening shuttle to downtown, but there is absolutely no rhyme or reason to its operation. That would certainly help in planning and taking any mass transit.

Anonymous said...

All of these mass transit proposals make perfect sense... well, other than the fact that no one would actually use them. O.K., so there is that. But wouldn't we feel so much better about ourselves if we had mass transit options available? Not only could we tell ourselves how hip we are, but we could also break up the monotony of chiding people for their vehicle choices by also chiding them for not using the wonderful -- if economically inefficient -- mass transit system.

Despite years of effort and angst, downtown Huntsville is no closer to being economically viable than it was ten years ago, but by all means we should not let this inconvenient fact stop us from pushing for even more public money to be spent there. An empty downtown simply is not complete without an unused mass transit option.

I agree this is definitely something worth spending people's hard-earned tax money on.

Anonymous said...

So does anyone actually go to the botanical gardens? or the space center for that matter? Definitely not enough to spend that kind of money on. It seems as though that money would be better spent on improving the space center if anything. Perhaps an up to date IMAX.

I like the streetcar idea.

I think if there were a "high speed" rail between Huntsville and Decatur that went through Madison, research park, and UAH people would use it. The traffic from Huntsville to Decatur in the afternoons is horrible. I'm glad I don't have to go that route.

Also, people complain about no nightlife in the area, wouldn't this make it more likely that more people would go out without the fear of having to drive after two or three drinks?

Of course all of this would be easier with planning, something that doesn't exist here.

Don't even get me started on the "Bike Lane"... the ONE that goes nowhere and is not implemented correctly...