The growing mixed use area east of Downtown may be home to Houston’s first streetcar since the region’s extensive 90 mile system was torn out more than 70 years ago, according to the Houston Chronicle:
The city once teemed with streetcars running along 90 miles of track. The rise of the automobile drove them out of business, and sprawl scattered Houstonians too widely to have much use for a plodding tram. It is a dynamic that played out nationally.
The streetcar is making a comeback as a retro amenity of the new urbanism of less automobile-dependent neighborhoods. That ethic appears to be taking hold in Houston as evidenced by the latest Kinder Houston Area Survey finding that 51 percent of respondents preferred a smaller home within walking distance of jobs and shops to a larger home that requires getting in a car to go everywhere. Attendees at a neighborhood group meeting in February also suggested a streetcar line for Washington Avenue.
Portland, Ore.; Memphis, Tenn.; Tampa, Fla.; Little Rock, Ark.; Seattle and Dallas have lines. San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Washington and Detroit are among the cities planning or considering lines. Galveston’s streetcar line was knocked out by Hurricane Ike, but civic leaders hope to get it running again next year.
“They’re friendly and approachable. You don’t have to tear up the whole street to build one. It’s easy to get on and off them,” said Diane Schenke, president of the Greater East End District, the economic development agency for the 16 square miles enclosed by Interstate 45, Loop 610 and Clinton Drive.
‘Last mile’ problem
Streetcars, which generally are single cars driven by electricity on rails embedded in roads they share with automobiles, are not on a fast track locally. There is no money yet to build even the 4-mile loop - which could cost $10 million a mile - envisioned as the first phase of the project being studied for the East End. Even if there were startup funds, there is no plan to sustain it, since fares alone do not support a system.
Greater East End leaders say the area is fertile ground for the rebirth of the streetcar. Its proximity to an estimated 150,000 downtown jobs makes it a potential commuter hot spot. Streetcar line installation costs could be held in check by the use of remnant track on Commerce and other streets in the neighborhood and the possibility of excavating a long-filled tunnel at Preston and Dowling for a low-cost underpass beneath a freight rail line. Streetcars, Greater East End leaders say, would be particularly useful in solving the East End’s so-called “last mile” problem, in which developers are wary of building too far from the light rail line out of a fear that residents and businesses will not buy in because of the prospect of a long walk in summer heat.
Even with federal funding and future income from a recently created city tax rebate zone in the neighborhood, the East End needs some of those developers to make bets on the neighborhood to increase the property tax collections that will have to be part of the financing package, said Patrick Ezzell, the district’s planning and infrastructure director. It’s a chicken-and-egg proposition. A streetcar line may attract development, but the district needs development first to raise the tax revenue to launch the line.
“Developers have loved it in other cities,” Ezzell said. “Whether that would translate to Houston, we don’t know.”