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Proposed DTLA streetcar may be new but its concept is a century old

By Hayley Fox
Published: Thursday, November 22, 2012, at 09:41AM
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Les Frank, conductor for 9 years, says farewell as he offers doughnuts to his passengers on this Pacific Electric Santa Ana Line train, soon to be drastically cutback.

Downtown voters have less than two weeks left to vote on a proposed new streetcar that will snake through a four-mile stretch of DTLA; although this streetcar will be brand new, its concept is about a century old.

Nancy Gneier is the Executive Director of the Travel Town Museum Foundation, which runs a train and railroad museum in Griffith Park. She said not only was most of Southern California built along railroad lines but before cars exploded on the scene, streetcars and rail lines were used by nearly everybody.

“The streetcars were the way for the general worker to get around and they could live in their homes in the suburbs which they could buy the plot of land much less expensively then they could in town, and catch the streetcar and take it into work everyday," said Gneier.

L.A. Streetcar Inc. is the non-profit organization made up of Downtown property owners, businesses and community leaders who are leading the charge to bring the streetcar back. They say that during the first half of the 1900s, the streetcar was an extremely popular mode of transportation along Broadway. It was operated by Pacific Electric from 1901 to 1961 and became part of the operation's more than 1,100 miles of track throughout Southern California.

"That is why Los Angeles is as spread out and as open as it is today, is because of the railroad lines -- because of the Pacific Electric rail car lines or trolley lines," said Gneier.

Gneier said the streetcars were reliable, inexpensive and efficient -- but eventually, as technology and development progressed, the car killed the railroad star.

"The convenience and accessibility of automobiles eroded the advantages of the historic streetcar system, and led to precipitous declines in ridership. Widespread adoption of diesel buses ultimately led to the abandonment of all streetcar systems on March 31, 1963," according to Streetcar Inc.'s website.

Shiraz Tangri is the general counsel for the Streetcar group, and said the new streetcar would fill a gap in Downtown's network of public transportation.

"While there's been a lot of transit development in Downtown over really the last 15 years with the subway and light-rail coming back in, those are all regional systems that come through Downtown and touch downtown, but none of them really move people around downtown particularly well," said Tangri.

He said the streetcar will be an effective tool for economic development in the area and described it as a "fixed asset" which developers may see as an incentive to invest in Downtown.

The streetcar's circular loop will go through some of Downtown's busiest areas -- including L.A. Live, the Civic Center and Broadway. It will facilitate tourists' access to shopping, dining and exploring the area while also helping residents' go about their everyday activities; like running errands and going to work.

And it is up to these residents to decide whether the system is worth the money. Downtowners living close to the streetcar route have a chance to vote in a mail-in election, which will determine whether an additional parcel tax will be levied on nearby property owners to fund half of the streetcar's $125 million budget. The individual amount these owners pay will vary depending on the size of their parcel and their proximity to the route.

Marlon Boarnet, Professor and Director of Graduate Programs in Urban Planning and Development at USC, says its a good idea to have property owners pay for part of the streetcar.

“I actually think it’s a good thing though that the test is ‘will downtown residents pony up the money,’ because Downtown will definitely be the place that will reap the benefits and if the place that is seeing the benefits isn’t willing to pay some of the costs, then frankly, the project should probably stop right there,” he said.

While the city clerk won't count the votes until December 3, things may be looking up for the proposed streetcar based on voter registration numbers. Streetcar Inc. says that within the Community Facilities District (CFD) -- the area that's eligible to vote for or against the streetcar tax -- there's been a surge in voter registration over the past few months: Between May 21, 2012 and November 1, 2012, there's been a 37.2 percent increase in the number of registered voters in this area.

This number is compared to the 14.7 percent increase in registered voters throughout the rest of Downtown (not including the CFD) over the same time period.

Councilman José Huizar, whose 14th District would encompass the new streetcar, said the increase in voter registration in the CFD merely shows what he knew all along -- that people support the streetcar and what it will do for Downtown.

"The streetcar will help create a better connected, pedestrian-oriented downtown, bringing jobs, services, economic development and revitalization all around the route while helping downtown function as a complete, cohesive neighborhood."

The streetcar tax needs at least two-thirds of people to vote in favor for it to pass. It it does, the end result will be a modern incarnation of the historic streetcar. Instead of trying to recreate the old look, Tangri said they're embracing modern developments to create a more streamlined, accessible design.

The new streetcars are quieter, run on cleaner energy and are ADA-friendly -- meaning they have low floors so people in wheelchairs, yielding strollers or carrying bicycles can easily roll on and off.

Streetcar supporters say they look to other urban cities throughout the U.S. -- such as Portland and Seattle -- as models of modern, effective streetcar systems.

To get a glimpse of the fond farewell given to the old streetcars, check out the video below. For more information on the streetcar tax, route or plans, go to L.A. Streetcar Inc.


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