PORTLAND — Tony Donovan, a commercial Realtor and rail transit advocate, stood on a busy section of Commercial Street last Friday afternoon talking about how a streetcar system would improve the city.
“This is not nostalgia,” Donovan said. “This is the future.”
As he talked, he counted cars with only single occupants passing on the street that was itself once a streetcar thoroughfare, with evidence of its rails still visible in places. At one point, seven consecutive vehicles without passengers backed up behind a crosswalk.
“It will make it so much better,” he said, heavily emphasizing the last three words. People could come to Portland by rail, by bus, by ferry, and never even get in a car to travel around the city, he said.
A few days before, the City Council’s Transportation, Sustainability, and Energy committee had taken up a brief agenda item to discuss forming a task force on creating a streetcar system. Donovan, who works with the Maine Rail Transit Coalition, and several others attended the meeting to express support for exploring steetcars.
The committee declined to take immediate action on the item. Councilor Kevin Donoghue said he wanted to find funding for a feasibility study on streetcars before establishing a task force; Councilor Cheryl Leeman was skepticla that a form of mass transportation abandoned in Portland more than 70 years ago would be a viable contemporary transit solution.
But the idea is likely to be revisited in the coming months.
Grant applications for study funding through the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System are due in February, and Donoghue said after the meeting that with the exploratory money lined up, a task force could be gathered.
For 80 years, the city’s public transportation was dominated by streetcars. The first ones, put into use in 1860, were pulled by horse teams. By the 1890s, the first electric street cars appeared. In 1918, there were more than 200 streetcars in service, linking the peninsula with the Riverton neighborhood and beyond. Lines ran to Westbrook, South Portland, and Cape Elizabeth.
Streetcars reigned until private automobiles began to grow in popularity. The city replaced them with gas-powered buses in 1941.
More recently, a renewed interest in streetcars has picked up steam in large and small cities around the country. Providence, R.I., Manchester, N.H., and Burlington, Vt., have all at least discussed streetcar projects. Providence received preliminary approval for a two-mile, $126 million streetcar loop from the Rhode Island transit authority in March.
Questions raised by Leeman, including whether the city has sufficient population density to support streetcars, and whether they would create a functional transit system in a state mostly reliant on cars, would be addressed by a feasibility study, supporters said.
In some cases, the answers are apparent from looking at the past.
“I can only point to the fact that the entire city of Portland and region were built in a pattern because of street cars,” City Councilor David Marshall, the transportation committee chairman, said Monday. “Density is not a concern of mine at all.”
In Portland, a new rail-based public transportation system would reduce traffic and support economic development, supporters say.
A new streetcar system, running on electrified wires similar to Boston’s above-ground Green Line, could be built on larger city streets, like Franklin and Spring streets, Marshall said, “that have the extra capacity to handle it.”
Running streetcars along the eastern waterfront, Spring Street, and in Bayside could play a role in redeveloping them, he said.
Both Marshall and Donovan say that streetcars and other fixed-rail systems invite more investment and development than bus systems, and pointed to the massive, multi-million development project that will change the face of Thompson’s Point just behind the Portland Transportation Center in coming years as evidence.
The city with perhaps the nation’s flagship modern streetcar system, Portland, Oregon, has seen $2.5 billion in new construction along its line since it was built in 1997, Marshall said.
A streetcar system would have costs itself; Donovan estimated that it would cost $75 million-$100 million to get a system running. Marshall said that the costs of maintaining a streetcar line afterwards would be less than those incurred by keeping up a bus system.
Finding that money would be key to turning the streetcar dream into a reality, he said: “This is all going to be contingent on us being able to secure federal support.”
Public Services Director Michael Bobinsky said Monday that he is waiting for assurance from transportation committee members that streetcars are a priority before moving forward. He also said that other projects already in progress, including the second phase of the Franklin Street study, need to be pushed ahead, and may have an impact on future streetcar discussions.
Marshall and Donovan said that the time is right to start the dialogue.
“What’s the problem with evaluating?” Donovan said Friday. “Let’s get to work.”