Does Sarasota desire a streetcar?
That is the question city planners, elected officials and residents will be talking about next month.
The city had hired an engineer to conduct a $70,000 feasibility study, which is the first step in a lengthy process. And a public workshop is scheduled for mid-November to collect community input on the possibility of a downtown circulator —whether it would be a rubber-tire circulator, such as a bus-type trolley, or a fixed-track streetcar.
Streetcars are the more expensive option, costing $25 million to $50 million for each mile of the track.
But advocates say a streetcar in Sarasota would be much more inviting for residents and tourists to ride than a trolley or bus.
“A streetcar is sexy,” said Forrest Shaw, owner of Pastry Art downtown and co-organizer of the grassroots Sarasota Streetcar Initiative. “It is not the same as getting on a bus.”
Part of the allure of streetcars is their heritage. At the turn-of-the-century streetcars fueled growth in many cities. Part of the draw is the permanence and predictability of a streetcar, advocates say.
Proponents, who helped bring streetcars to cities such as Tampa and Kenosha, Wis., say they are an investment but steer revitalization and economic growth to the commercial and residential districts along their tracks.
Mayor Suzanne Atwell said she is a supporter of a long-planned proposal to bring a “circulator” downtown, but she is not sure whether a bus-type trolley or a fixed-track streetcar would work best.
“It will depend, quite frankly, on community buy-in,” Atwell said.
But Atwell noted that during a recent mobility-planning survey, 75% of respondents said they favor multi-modal transportation coming to the city, especially downtown.
“Can you imagine? How wonderful it would be to go downtown to the Palm Avenue parking structure and get on a circulator and go to the Van Wezel or FST,” Atwell said. “Imagine how that would redefine how we get about.”
Any possibility of a streetcar project that would cost upward of $50 million would hinge on federal funding.
“The operative word is ‘federal funding,’” Atwell said.
Michael English, urban planner with Tindale-Oliver & Associates, Inc., has been working on Sarasota’s circulator feasibility study. He expects the study to be completed in early November.
English said that cities that have built a streetcar system typically get about 90% of the project funded with federal grants.
“The federal transit administration likes them,” said English, who was also involved in bringing a streetcar system to Tampa and serves as vice president of the Tampa Historic Streetcar board of directors.
But Sarasota would be competing for a limited number of federal grants available against other cities that are moving ahead with streetcars.
The feasibility study will outline three possible routes for streetcar tracks, including one that would run west to east through downtown. Each route is between 1.5 to 2 miles long and could be constructed in separate phases, English said.
A long process.
It’s difficult to tell whether Sarasota officials and residents would have the gumption to endure the competitive grant process. A major hurdle would be showing federal transportation officials that the city and county transportation officials can come up with a business plan to operate the streetcar for at least 20 years.
If city commissioners do move ahead with a streetcar, the next step would be a more in-depth study before applying for federal grants.
Although larger cities, such as Portland, Ore., often build streetcar systems, it could be possible for a city of Sarasota’s size to bring in a streetcar system, English said.
“I think it is certainly possible,” said the urban planner. “We haven’t finished the study yet, but at the end of the day, the City Commission, city staff and the community will have to weigh the cost and benefits and make a decision whether they want to move forward.”
Although the capital costs are more expensive for the fixed-track streetcar, the operating costs, depending on hours of operation, are comparable between a streetcar and a bus-type trolley.
The city has to figure out if a streetcar is what would best serve the community.
“Sarasota is a city that plays above its weight,” English said. “It’s not a huge city. But it has a vibrant downtown and a lot of tourist attractions and more than 4 million visitors a year. I think if the city’s goal is to really encourage more business in the downtown area and more redevelopment and more people working downtown, perhaps a streetcar system would make sense. And that is the decision the city has to make. It really is a risk-return conversation.”
Shaw is enthusiastic about the potential.
He notes the modern streetcar still has the ability to attract workers, vacationers and residents and can draw in businesses and residential development along the track route.
“In every case where a modern streetcar was built, millions and even billions followed in economic development,” Shaw said.
Shaw cites statistics that show how development investments grow in cities after they built a streetcar including: $150 million in development investment in Kenosha, Wis.; $1 billion in development investment in Tampa; $200 million in development investment in Little Rock, Ark.; and $2.3 billion in development investment in Portland, Ore. The data, from 2006, is from various studies, including calculations of new planned development located three blocks or less from the streetcar in Tampa at that time.
Shaw said a streetcar in Sarasota would connect downtowners to the recently constructed Palm Avenue parking garage and the proposed parking garage on State Street, while working in sync with the planned roundabouts to connect downtown and the bayfront.
“We have this incredible downtown and bayfront that are not connected,” Shaw said.
At 99,000 residents, Kenosha, Wis., is slightly more populated than Sarasota. In 2000, the city put in its streetcar to help spur redevelopment where a Chrysler closed along Lake Michigan.
Kenosha completed that project using existing tracks and vintage 1952 cars (for the cost of shipping from Canada), and now the city is planning a $10 million expansion of the streetcar line.
“(The streetcars) have proved to be a good signature for us,” said Mayor Keith Bosman, who served as a council member when the streetcars were approved. “It is a nice attraction for downtown.”
For the expansion, Kenosha received an $8 million federal grant, and the city has to contribute about $2 million to the project.
Currently, the streetcars run from Lake Michigan to the metro station in downtown Kenosha.
“It’s a two-mile loop that goes east to west,” Bosman said. “We are proposing a two-mile loop (expansion) that goes north to south. That will connect the whole downtown.”
In Kenosha, ridership decreases in the winter months — with the exception of Christmas and Halloween.
“That’s a problem Sarasota won’t have,” Bosman said.
Just north of Sarasota, Tampa’s historic streetcars — which are operated by a three-way partnership between the city, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) and a nonprofit — run along a 2.7-mile line serving restaurants and bars in Ybor City, the Channel District, including the Port of Tampa and Channelside Bay Plaza and downtown Tampa.
That streetcar system recently underwent a one-third mile expansion that extended the streetcar further north into Tampa’s downtown. The expansion opened last year.
On Oct. 20, the Tampa streetcar system will celebrate its 10th anniversary.
Since 2009, ridership has decreased slightly every year, and county transportation officials are conducting a survey to try to find out why ridership has been declining. Despite the decrease in ridership, there has been a regional positive impact, said Marcia Mejia, public information officer for HART.
“There has been $1.2 billion in private investment along the line since 2005,” said Mejia.
Streetcars existed in Tampa from the late 1800s until they rolled to a stop in 1946, just after World War II, when the automobiles became more mainstream. It was a grassroots group that pushed for a modern streetcar line, which opened in 2002.
“The streetcars are historic replicas of the first streetcar system,” Mejia said.