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A Desire Named Streetcar

The New York Times reports today that some 40 cities, including Cincinnati, are getting hot to build new downtown streetcar systems—or upgrade old ones—in order to reduce congestion and revitalize urban neighborhoods, especially with gas prices high and a growing number of people looking to move back to the city:

Cincinnati officials are assembling financing for a $132 million system that would connect the city’s riverfront stadiums, downtown business district and Uptown neighborhoods, which include six hospitals and the University of Cincinnati, in a six- to eight-mile loop. Depending on the final financing package, fares may be free, 50 cents or $1. ...

Streetcar advocates point to Portland, Ore., which built the first major modern streetcar system in the United States, in 2001, and has since added new lines interlaced with a growing light rail system. Since Portland announced plans for the system, more than 10,000 residential units have been built and $3.5 billion has been invested in property within two blocks of the line, according to Portland Streetcar Inc., which operates the system.

The fact that they can be electrified is a nice touch, too. I'd be curious to know how the streetcars would interact with traffic, what with sharing lanes and all, though no doubt this is being studied, and automobiles and trolleys seem to have little problem sharing the road in San Francisco. (Indeed, the main problem with San Francisco's streetcars is that they've lately become too popular and horribly overcrowded—actually, no, scratch that, the main problem is that Muni is chronically underfunded and at times utterly dysfunctional, though I don't think those are inherently unfixable problems.)

As for the streetcar detractors, the Times piece quotes the Cato Institute's Randal O'Toole, who gripes that these systems require public subsidies (well, so do highways—and no, gas taxes don't cover everything) and that they're "only designed to support downtown residents." I'm not sure I understand the latter criticism: Cities enact all sorts of policies designed primarily to support suburban commuters—subsidized parking, for one. Obviously streetcars won't make sense in all situations, but there's hardly anything illegitimate about focusing on downtown residents, too. Or are there other valid complaints I'm missing?

--Bradford Plumer