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)
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.