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Feds designate $480,000 for Grand Rapids streetcar project

Thursday, January 24, 2008
Related TagsBy: Deborah Johnson Wood

The proposed streetcar for downtown Grand Rapids is far from being a done deal, yet federal lawmakers have approved a $480,000 earmark from the 2008 Federal Transportation Appro- priations Bill.

The money could fund a couple of studies: an environmental impact study, which is a prerequisite for federal funding, and a study of future alignment extensions that might be built after a first phase of development.

Peter Varga, CEO of The Rapid, says that anecdotal evidence indicates that business and city leaders think the streetcar will be approved because of the high return on investment in the streetcar corridor.

In Portland, Oregon, an initial 4.8-mile track cost $55.2 million and leveraged over $1 billion in development. In Little Rock, Arkansas, a 2.5-mile track cost $16.9 million and spurred $200 million in investment.

Chris Beckering of Grubb & Ellis Paramount Commerce is a downtown real estate insider, and, although he's heard a lot of talk, he hasn't seen any investment action yet.

"The concept of walkability in an urban environment is complemented by a robust transit system," says Beckering, "and a streetcar system will add to the momentum of downtown development. Right now, developers are factoring in the potential for the investment, but the streetcar project isn't far enough along where any developers are making acquisitions along the route."

"Once we have a definition of the project, know that it's worthwhile, and know that the people of Grand Rapids approve it," Varga adds, "then some kind of nonprofit would be formed to raise the money to build the streetcar."

Source: Peter Varga, The Rapid; Chris Beckering, Grubb & Ellis Paramount Commerce.

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GRAND RAPIDS -- The train hasn't left the station, but plans are on track for a return to downtown streetcars.

A task force on Friday -- announced an initial route -- from Sixth Street NW south down Monroe Avenue to Market Avenue and over to The Rapid's Central Station.

The next step is to determine the potential for development along the 1.5-mile stretch, whether anybody would ride it, the cost of construction and how The Rapid would pay for it.

"There seems to be a lot of positive energy behind this, but we have a long way to go," said Rapid Director of Development Jim Fetzer.

The idea has sparked a flurry of calls to the Rapid transit system's office from area residents, he said.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time they say, this is what the city needs. It will make the city more vital downtown."

A consulting team expects to start surveying the route to determine the cost of construction, including the impact on utilities.

The consultants also are working with major developers in the area who "recognize how a streetcar can drive development," Fetzer said.

The Public Transportation Tomorrow Task Force expects to make its final recommendations to the Rapid board in June.

The sleek streetcars would run in the slow lanes on both sides of the road -- one headed north, the other south, for a total route of 3 miles of rails. They would travel about 12 mph, powered by overhead wires.

The average cost of building streetcar systems is $24 million a mile -- about $72 million in all -- though the price-tag could be lower because the route is flat and has no railroad tracks to cross, Fetzer said.

The streetcar route would eventually connect to a proposed express bus line, with new buses serving communities south of downtown Grand Rapids as far as 60th Street on a bus-only lane on South Division Avenue.

Federal funds could be available as soon as this fall to begin designing the $33.6 million bus line, which could begin running in 2011 or 2012.

Rapid officials say a streetcar system, if approved, is at least five years away.

Rapid officials point to a resurgence of streetcars across the country, including Portland, Ore., where a 2.4- mile streetcar line that opened in 2001 at a cost of $56.9 million helped spark $2.39 billion in private investment in four years.

Rapid Executive Director Peter Varga says streetcars generate 10 to 20 times their initial construction costs in private investment.

Rising gasoline prices and a desire by cities to reverse the decline of inner cities are fueling the resurgence of streetcars, transit officials say.