Elbert: D.M. tram system seen as sure-fire spark for development
BY DAVID ELBERT ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¢ [email protected]
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã‚Â¢ JANUARY 18, 2009
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The difference between a streetcar that runs on rails and one that runs on rubber tires is economic development. With a tram you get development, with buses you don't.
It's that simple, explained Charlie Hales, a consultant from Portland, Ore.
Hales, who works for Omaha-based HDR Engineering, was in Des Moines last week as part of a feasibility study on whether the city should have a rail-based, downtown transit system.
The system he favors is not cheap. Including streetcars, it costs about $25 million a mile to build. For the two to three miles that Des Moines would need, that's $50 million to $75 million.
Since May, Des Moines has operated a downtown shuttle bus that carries an average of 800 riders a day on a loop between the Capitol and Meredith Corp.
The shuttle is considered a huge success, and a lot of people are wondering why it shouldn't just be left like that for now.
Hales has two reasons.
First, he said, studies show that modern trams are significant catalysts for the type of economic development that could benefit Des Moines in a number of ways.
Second, a once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity is about to open that could help pay for a new downtown tram.
Historically, federal and state transportation officials have refused to help pay for intracity transit systems. But there's reason to believe that is about to change, Hales said.
Policymakers from President-elect Barack Obama to Gov. Chet Culver are looking for ways to jump-start the economy. And one of the solutions they promote is public spending on infrastructure.
They're looking for what they call transformational projects.
What better way to transform Des Moines into a 21st-century city than by creating a back-to-the-future transit system that has already proved in other cities that it can stimulate housing and retail development?
Downtown Des Moines has made a lot of progress in recent years, but those two key pieces are still lagging.
And beginning next year, there will be a new problem when insurers Wellmark and Aviva move to new headquarters, leaving behind nearly a million square feet of empty office space.
Those concerns helped prompt the tram study that HDR is doing. The $200,000 cost of the study will be paid by private employers, most notably Nationwide Insurance.
Last week, Hales made two presentations at the downtown library, in which he outlined the recent history of tram projects and asked for public input on four options for a route through downtown Des Moines.
Hales was a city commissioner in Portland in the mid-1990s when he helped persuade that city to build a downtown tram system. That success resulted in Hales joining HDR, where he now consults on electric streetcar projects in cities nationwide.
The motivation for Portland's tram was the environment, Hales said. The city wanted a green way to move large numbers of people.But by the time the streetcars started running in 1997, developers were already at work.
"People say that buses are just as effective," said Portland developer John Carroll. "My take on that is, if the community makes the commitment to put the infrastructure in, it signals permanence, which means that the streetcar isn't all of a sudden going to take a left-hand turn one day. That's a very strong catalyst for development."
The four projects Carroll has built in downtown Portland in the past decade are all within a block of the streetcar line and all are full, he said.
The development that follows streetcar routes is residential, Hales said, but it can be tweaked. Before launching a tram route here, he said, officials may want to do what Portland did: pass a zoning ordinance that requires 50 percent of first-floor space be storefronts.
Some of that first-floor space was slow to lease at first, Hales said. But now, with the nearby housing full, the storefront space is considered golden.
Studies in Portland and other cities that have added trams during the past decade show that development occurs much faster and in higher densities along streetcar lines than in adjacent areas, Hales said.
It's the same thing you see on interstate highways, he said, where development sprouts at every intersection.
One example he likes to cite involves a Portland bookstore.
The owner initially opposed the streetcar plan because he did not want to give up two parking spaces in front of his store, Hales said.
So, someone took a count of the number of pedestrians who passed the store. Before the streetcar, it was an average of three per hour. After the streetcar, it jumped to more than 900 per hour.
Today, the bookstore owner is one of biggest backers of Portland's tram, Hales said.