U.S. cities look at trolleys

Augusta isn't the only city talking about trolleys.

A streetcar revival in American cities is flying at city halls all over.

In Idaho's capital, Boise, a proposed $60 million trolley plan has become a major theme of local elections Nov. 3.

Likewise, mayoral races in Charlotte, N.C., and Cincinnati hinge at least partially on whether they should build lines of their own.

What links Boise, Cincinnati and Charlotte – and Salt Lake City, Dallas, Atlanta and Kansas City, where streetcar tracks abandoned in 1953 still poke through the city's weathered asphalt – is they're among dozens of local governments hoping their modern street projects will benefit from federal grants, including $1.5 billion in stimulus funding due to be awarded by mid-February 2010.

In all, about 80 U.S. cities have streetcar proposals, the American Public Transportation Association says, a trend bolstered by President Barack Obama's signal he's more inclined to pump federal dollars into streetcars than was President Bush.

In Augusta, a Downtown Development Authority committee is looking into the feasibility of a trolley system.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been revising policies that had favored applications for projects that moved people further and faster, like rapid-transit buses, but downplayed attributes like economic development.

"The bottom line is, this administration wants more transit options for more people and that includes streetcars," Mr. LaHood told The Associated Press last week.

In late October, his agency chipped in $75 million to help expand the 7-year-old streetcar system in Portland, Ore., marking the first time the Small Starts grant program for small-scale urban transit projects has been used for streetcars.

Still, the availability of federal cash hasn't quelled local debate.

Proponents see streetcars as economic development engines that will reduce congestion and air-pollution by turning back the clock: Streetcars largely disappeared from U.S. cities by the 1950s, as automobiles bullied them to the margins.

In Portland, for instance, its streetcar system is credited with helping create $2.5 billion in construction since the line was announced in 1997, including 7,248 new housing units within three blocks of the tracks.

Foes, however, dismiss trolleys as "toy trains" that benefit special interests and promote profligate public spending. The rush for easy federal cash, they argue, is obscuring the reality that cities will eventually rely on taxpayers to subsidize lines; federal dollars go only for construction.

Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory favors his city's $128 million streetcar plan, after traveling to Seattle and Toronto to see their urban rail projects.

Brad Wenstrup, Mallory's challenger, calls the project "ill conceived" and compares it to Cincinnati's failed early 20th century subway, where miles of tunnel were dug but no track ever laid.

Foes such as the Cincinnati NAACP got a measure on the ballot seeking to require a popular vote before any streetcar could proceed.

"This is some kind of a dream sequence of people who want to pretend they are in Portland, Oregon," said Dusty Rhodes, the Hamilton County auditor and a vocal Cincinnati streetcar opponent.

In Charlotte's mayoral race, Republican candidate John Lassiter said he likes the idea but insists there's no money to pay for it. Democrat Anthony Foxx contends a 10-mile line that could cost $400 million will help boost downtown's fortunes; last month, he voted to override the current mayor's veto of a $4.5 million engineering study.

The streetcar is one of the few areas where the two Charlotte candidates part ways.

Just days before Tuesday's city council election in Boise, David Litster, a Harvard-educated businessman who wants to kill the city's proposed 2.3-mile downtown line, mailed flyers suggesting his opponent TJ Thomson is in cahoots with streetcar backers such as Mayor Dave Bieter. Bieter has endorsed Thomson.

"The streetcar is really just a symptom of a problem – keeping a careful eye on spending and keeping taxes low, and listening to voters," Litster said. "This trolley fails on both accounts."

Thomson, an Idaho Power Co. auditor who worked on Obama's 2008 campaign, counters Litster is misrepresenting his stance: Thomson is undecided whether to back the streetcar, especially before an economic study, and wants the matter to go to a vote.

He's also waiting to see if Boise gets $40 million of the proposed $60 million cost of the trolley system from the stimulus act, because it's competing with transportation proposals nationwide totaling $57 billion, 38 times what's available.

Litster "has run a one-issue campaign," Thomson said. "It's just not that simple. But he's done a good job of keeping it in the spotlight."

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