- - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Nearly everybody likes a streetcar, but most of them live only in the memories of old folks. Once upon a time streetcars ran nearly everywhere in nearly every big city in America, and in a lot of not-so-big cities. Two hundred miles of track, for example, tied Washington to its suburbs in Virginia and Maryland.

The streetcar named Desire was only part of the network in New Orleans, which claimed to be the largest in America in the heyday of the streetcar in the years just after World War I, when few families owned an automobile and everyone went to work, to church or to the movies or vaudeville by streetcar. The music of a streetcar disappearing far into the night rivaled the whistle of a distant passenger train as the lonesome music of the night.

With the end of World War II, the transition to the bus — big, stinky and devoid of any hint of romance — began. Nobody ever wrote a poem or a song about a bus, and the streetcar tied cities together to retain the residential density needed to sustain the cars. But once freed from the rails, cities everywhere began the ugly urban sprawl into the surrounding countryside.

If nearly everybody likes a streetcar, fewer want to ride one. Several cities have tried to bring them back as part of the attempt to restore downtown, but the renaissance has rarely been a commercial success. Tourists can ride a reclaimed streetcar to Beale Street in Memphis, and visitors to Little Rock can take a streetcar to the city’s bustling restaurant and entertainment district along the Arkansas River, or within walking distance of the Clinton Presidential Library. In New Orleans, where the streetcar never died, visitors can still ride past the mansions that line St. Charles Avenue, and the cars are back at last on Canal Street. But nowhere has ridership reached the numbers promised. “In a lot of traffic conditions,” says Marc Scribner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, “you can walk faster than these streetcars.”

The renaissance of streetcars, now called “light rail,” nevertheless continues in some places. Charlotte, North Carolina, is moving ahead with a 9.3-mile, $1.2 billion extension of its original light-rail network, which was completed in 2007 at a cost of $483 million, which seems now a relative bargain. The Charlotte renaissance is in the red by $3 billion, and Mayor Dan Clodfelter wants the state to help bail it out. Once-enthusiastic supporters of light rail are having second thoughts.

Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, but light-rail ridership continues to decline and the figures for last year were no better than in 2008, the first year of full service, when the novelty of the streetcar pulled many riders aboard. “The assumption is that the [light-rail] traffic would increase as the region got denser,” says David Hartgen, a consultant formerly at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. “That hasn’t happened.”

Voters in Florida rejected a tax increase that would have paid for a 24-mile, $2.2 billion light-rail line between Clearwater and St. Petersburg. A proposal in Seattle to create a $5 tax to generate $2 million annually to pay for the first few miles of a monorail was defeated by a margin of 80 percent of city voters. The streetcar, loved and ignored, is on intensive care.

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