The planners behind Tempe’s streetcar are unveiling how and where the line will run — and if you’re envisioning a shrunken-down light-rail system, think again.
Other than overhead wires, the streetcar is quite different.
The streetcar shares traffic lanes with cars.
It runs by itself instead of with one or two other trains.
And instead of stopping at massive platforms in the middle of the road, the streetcar’s stops are on the sidewalk and feel more like a bus stop.
Metro will outline the streetcar’s features Sept. 6 in Tempe, figuring most Valley residents have never experienced a modern streetcar system. Only three operate in the U.S. today, but an explosion of interest has triggered 50 communities to begin planning their own systems.
Project manager Marc Soronson said the lines spur economic development with their closely-spaced stops. Those short distances boost the number of people who walk along streetcar lines, to the point a Portland streetcar has been called a “horizontal sidewalk,” he said. A streetcar industry group has said modern streetcars can make nearby residents more active.
“The Community Streetcar Coalition refers to it as the trip not taken,” Soronson said. “You wouldn’t take your car to take that trip but you would take the streetcar to take that trip.”
Tempe’s proposed 2.6-mile-long system would run along Mill Avenue from Southern Avenue to Rio Salado Parkway. North of University Drive, the track would head northbound on Mill Avenue, then turn southbound on Ash Avenue after a short run on Rio Salado Parkway.
The one-way loop should allow the streetcar to operate on Ash when special events close Mill downtown. Also, the Ash loop would also promote a new area to development that’s been mostly lifeless for years.
“There was this opinion that if you got off of Mill a little bit, it helps further define the Mill Avenue District as opposed to just Mill,” Soronson said.
Planners have proposed 13 stops. They’re about a quarter-mile apart and even closer downtown.
The streetcar should operate slightly faster than a bus. Metro estimates it will take 20 minutes to travel from one end to the other.
The track runs in the curb lane, mostly. In downtown, the streetcar shares the single northbound travel lane while leaving space along the curb for parking. Downtown merchants told planners they didn’t want the streetcar in the parking lane because that would reduce on-street parking and sidewalk spaces for outdoor dining.
Merchants have raised concerns about construction after seeing the disruption for the Metro light-rail system, Tempe Councilwoman Shana Ellis said.
Streetcar construction in Portland took as little as three weeks to do three blocks, she said. Streetcar lines don’t require extensive utility relocation.
“The entire street doesn’t need to be dug up,” she said. “It’s a different kind of construction.”
Metro will gather public input before beginning final design work. Also, the agency is developing design guidelines for the transit stops, paint schemes and other elements of streetcar systems to be built in Tempe or anywhere else in the Valley. The streetcar will have its own character, said Ben Limmer, a Metro planning manager.
“Certainly there will be come elements of the Metro light rail woven in but really minimal,” Limmer said.
Planners are also examining whether parts or all of the streetcar line could forego overhead wires. The manufacturer that built the Metro fleet, Japan-based Kinkisharyo, has a prototype that charges batteries like a hybrid car. Other manufacturers have only recently talked to Tempe about competing systems that could be ready in time for the city, Ellis said.
Tempe expects the $130 million streetcar will receive about two thirds of its funding from the federal government. The city is applying for two funding sources. A regional transportation sales tax will fund the rest.
The streetcar won’t require Tempe to buy parcels along the lines. The city anticipates only buying slivers of land at transit stops. Tempe is considering a park-and-ride lot near Southern Avenue but further study is needed. Ellis said the city needs to be mindful of parking to prevent streetcar users from parking in neighborhoods.
Even without the streetcar operating, it’s generated interest in additional sections, Ellis said: People have suggested running it to the library on Southern, and to places on Rio Salado like the Tempe Center for the Arts, Tempe Marketplace and even the planned Chicago Cubs spring training complex in Mesa.
“There’s just all sorts of big, exiting things that are happening and down the road, the streetcar could go there,” she said.
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