Streetcars, is there a desire?

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Here’s my nightmare.

Someone comes up with a superb idea that will benefit Colorado Springs in myriad ways, and I write a column endorsing it.

People read the column. Some love the idea, some hate it — opposition is the price paid for every meaningful innovation in history — and through the perspicacity of others, the idea advances to full-blown consideration by the city’s or county’s leaders.

Up to that point, I’m smiling as if my column had won a Pulitzer Prize for advocacy journalism.

But then, disaster strikes.

The idea goes to a task force. Or a committee. Or a study group.

Tucson, Ariz., has ordered seven streetcars for $26 million with an option for six more. Portland, Ore., already has them, and $4 billion in development has sprung up in a three-block downtown served by the streetcars. Twenty cities are ready to go with them, while 55 other cities, including Colorado Springs, are studying the possibilities.

There’s that nightmare word: studying.

Don’t misunderstand: No city or county or state or nation should leap blindly into any project, no matter how good it sounds. We have to study ideas, even those that sound obviously beneficial.

The Colorado Springs Streetcar Feasibility Study, paid for by private groups, started in August 2009; it should be finished in June.

And that’s the problem, the nightmare.

Studies give us worthwhile guidance. But I don’t think many of us need a study to know that, in June, no matter what the streetcar study finds, Colorado Springs will not be in any position to invest the many millions that would be necessary to pay for streetcar tracks and the streetcars themselves.

According to Chandra Brown, vice president of Oregon Ironworks in Portland, Ore., a modern streetcar costs between $3 million and $4 million. The actual rail system costs $10 million to $20 million per track-mile, more if the streets need other improvements to accommodate the rails. The Pikes Peak Historical Street Railway Foundation has antique rail cars that are being renovated for only $750,000 a car.

So what’s going to happen is, the well-meaning people examining the wisdom of streetcars here will put in countless hours, create a handsomely bound report, deliver it to the city’s leaders, then watch as the report gathers dust high on bookshelves in dozens of city offices.

Streetcars appeal to me from several perspectives: more downtown bustle without an accompanying increase in automobile traffic, the opportunity for economic development, the pursuit of cleaner air, etc.

But I can see now what will happen in June: If the study is favorable, the anti-everything movement will have ready placards declaring, “Streetcars are just another place for the homeless to congregate!” And who can ignore that the downtown dash buses are for sale on Craigslist and eBay, so why should there be investment in a transportation system way more expensive than buses?

The timing for streetcars is all wrong in an economy this weak and a city this restricted in its spending on public projects, unless …

… unless the city’s leaders start right now investigating whether state and-or federal grants are available to turn that handsomely bound report into something more than another ignored report on another hard-to-reach bookshelf.

According to David Lippincott there could be a source of funding from the Federal Transit Administration that would be requested and supervised by the city. There would need to be a match to the money which could include equipment the foundation already has and fund raising.

But assuming it uncovers the potential I see, this streetcar study is arriving at precisely the wrong time. The mood here is vociferously “No,” and if years pass before that mood changes, the handsomely bound report will be out of date and will require — you knew this was coming — yet more study.

Visionaries don’t wait. They’re ready to move forward, no matter what mood or mountain stands in the way.

The city’s leaders need to look for money now. Otherwise, the quaint sight of old-fashioned streetcars pumping up the local economy will exist only in illustrations on the pages of that handsomely bound report that is out of reach on that high bookshelf.

If you want to get involved, there will be a meeting Tuesday January 12 at the city administration building at 7:30 pm.

I wish them luck.

Lon Matejczyk is publisher of the Colorado Springs Business Journal. He can be reached at Lon.Matejczyk@csbj.com or 329-5202.

One Response to Streetcars, is there a desire?

  1. A streetcar would do nothing but make matters worse in an already congested Tejon Street corridor. The genius traffic engineers at the City would take far too long to facilitate the construction, which in and of itself would be entirely disruptive. A bad idea, this streetcar, even if some starry-eyed locals wish to channel Winfield Stratton to bring back the “good old days.”

    Dick Burns
    January 8, 2010 at 2:41 pm