Atlanta has just broken ground on a streetcar line. As the mayor of Portland, a city in the midst of a streetcar revival, I remember that feeling.
You’re probably wondering what comes next. You can look forward to a noticeable change in your city. Investing local, state and federal dollars to leverage private funds has reinvigorated our city, created jobs and given Portlanders a healthy, more sustainable transportation choice.
You’re also going to have some detractors. When we started, we had them, too. They were afraid that it would be too expensive and people wouldn’t ride it. We don’t hear that so much these days.
Portland broke ground on the initial line in 1999. We’ve documented that $3.5 billion of private and public development has occurred within blocks of the tracks. Two new neighborhoods, the Pearl District and South Waterfront, would not have grown and become jobs and housing centers without the streetcar and major investments in streets and transit.
It’s now difficult to remember the rusting rail yards and polluted fields that dominated the landscape less than a generation ago.
Creating vibrant, mixed-use neighborhoods around streetcars makes good business sense. Streetcars are attractive and tracks can’t be easily moved, so their presence makes business owners more likely to locate nearby. When I talk to Portland businesses — real estate brokerages, software incubators, wind energy corporations — relocating near the streetcar, I hear that the opportunity to get around their new neighborhood on rail, foot and bike is what these companies’ employees asked them to provide. It’s no longer necessary to drive to make a business meeting a mile away or lunch with a friend.
Although private development has slowed, public dollars have helped put Portlanders back to work and leveraged private dollars. Portland, too, received a federal TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant to build infrastructure, including a streetcar. Two years ago, the land near the TIGER-funded project was empty, cut off from downtown by massive freeways and polluted. Today, there are a half-dozen cranes building a $300 million science research and education center and a light rail bridge across the Willamette River. Landowners there have said they wouldn’t be preparing to develop their property now if it weren’t for these public investments.
Portland’s streetcar revival is almost 15 years old and we see no signs of the demand waning for dense, connected neighborhoods. With our current eight-mile loop of tracks growing to 14.7 miles this year, we see that as the system grows its popularity with business and residents grows, too.
Hopefully, a streetcar begins a revival for parts of Atlanta as well.
Sam Adams is the mayor of Portland, Ore.
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