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Why a Monorail is Better than a Streetcar

This post was submitted Greater City Providence reader Peter Brassard. If you’ve written something you’d like us to consider posting, please contact us and let us know.

A monorail is a better choice than a streetcar. The construction costs for a light monorail are similar to streetcars, but operational costs would be roughly 70% less. It is true that both conventional bus transit and Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT) have the least expensive upfront costs with operating expenses roughly 30% less than that of streetcars. [Comparison] Streetcars as with other rail modes (light-rail or commuter rail) will bring new jobs and new real estate development, which conventional buses will not.

portland streetcar

Portland, OR streetcar, Photo (cc) Adams Carroll from Flickr

RIPTA and the City of Providence will be holding public hearings, during the week of September 19, to get community input on the Providence Core Connector Study. The circulator project is intended to improve traffic movement throughout Downtown to better integrate the Jewelry District, the 195 surplus land, and Downcity. It would also facilitate the implementation of the “starter streetcar” system that will connect College Hill, the train station, and the South Providence Hospital District.

Due to the ongoing physical expansion of Downtown and the continued development of the medical biotech industry in the city, a new internal Downtown transit system is becoming increasingly necessary. When commuter rail service is re-established from points south, parts of Downtown will be too distant from the train station. It’s unreasonable to expect commuters to walk to jobs in the Hospital or Jewelry Districts from the train station. Along with a connection to College Hill, the proposed starter streetcar system will begin to address Downtown’s current transit deficiencies.

One of Mayor Cicilline’s original reasons for proposing streetcars is that they would demonstrate a serious commitment to transit and the city’s development. His assertion can be backed up by decades of data that confirms when U.S. cities have installed rail transit it acts as a catalyst to increase jobs, real estate development and values, and tax income, as well as, attracting new businesses and increasing population near stations. [Transit 2020 Economic Development (.pdf)] Conventional bus systems don’t have that impact. Capital Center where the majority of Downtown development has occurred over the last 10 years was due in large part because of its adjacency to Providence Station with commuter and intercity trains, is a local example of this positive rail-economic effect.

Is RIPTA’s and the city’s choice of streetcars simply following a national trend? Just about every city in the country right now is enamored with and attempting to build streetcars or light-rail systems. Many of these cities are the same ones that so enthusiastically dismantled their preceding streetcar systems in the 1940s and 50s, another trend. What other transit methods might be available to provide affordable high-quality service beyond traditional buses that will have a positive economic effect? Over the last several years this website and writer have advocated for the re-introduction of streetcars in the City of Providence. With the upcoming hearings it might be worth examining the proposed streetcar choice by comparing it with other transit modes along with potential costs.

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