Thursday, August 19, 2010

Dennis Allen brings the Streetcar vision to the Transit Coalition

LA Streetcar's CEO, Dennis Allen, was the latest in a Rock Star lineup of transportation executives to join the Transit Coalition for its monthly advocacy session at Philippe's the Original, presenting the non-profit's vision for positioning a streetcar circulator as an integral element in the Bringing Back Broadway movement.

Allen's presentation was equal parts vision, technical, urban planning, funding strategy, community engagement and economics. His ability to address and satisfy the diverse interests of the Transit Coalition's "peer review" approach to project presentations speaks volumes to the LA Streetcar's ability to connect the many needs of the local community.

In other words, sometimes a Streetcar isn't simply a Streetcar.

Allen was joined by Russell Brown, LASI Boardmember and Executive Director of Historic Downtown BID, and together they presented the many facets of the LA Streetcar vision along with the many ways to position a streetcar as a transportation solution, as a placemaking tool, as an economic stimulus, as an opportunity to create community, and as an opportunity to connect people, neighborhoods, and transportation modes.

The proposed streetcar route is approximately four miles in length and would serve areas including Bunker Hill, Grand Avenue and the Music Center, Historic Broadway and the Historic Core, South Park, L.A. LIVE and the Los Angeles Convention Center, running seven days a week and as much as eighteen hours a day.

It has been a couple of years since community members from the downtown area gathered together for a field trip to Portland and Seattle, all in an effort to turn the theoretical into reality. First person experiences of the LA team combined with good data from the merchants and residents who participated in the Portland and Seattle streetcar projects provided the fuel for the LA Streetcar campaign which then resulted in LA's Streetcar Conference and the community based Streetcar planning process. A simple vision took on grassroots support and is now moving forward with seed money, first phase funding, a Metro partnership, and a timeline.

Allen and Brown are adept at addressing the many benefits of a simple four mile connector, moving fluidly from "last mile" solution for commuters to "park once" options for visitors. Key to the entire operation is their ability to engage the local property owners who stand to benefit from an improved streetlife but who will also be financial partners.

A recent poll in the Los Angeles Business Journal asks "How much new vitality would the downtown business community enjoy if streetcars started running again?" The unscientific poll resulted in 70% of the participants declaring "A great deal." This position is supported by the operators and the merchants of the Seattle and the Portland streetcars systems as evidenced by their participation in the LA Streetcar conference and their stories of moving from naysayer to yeasayer.

The promise of a streetcar in Los Angeles is not without obstacles but they are not technical or logistical, they are simply funding and process oriented, still formidable but certainly manageable. Allen and Brown estimate that the journey will take two years for the funding and environmental work and then two years for the construction which will be somewhat low-impact on the local community because of the simplicity. At the same time, the implementation of the streetcar improvements is also the best time to implement street level enhancements that improve the walkability of the area.

Brown estimates that the cost of the four mile Streetcar circulator at $100 million, noting "The first thing you do need is to be simple and realistic, start at one place and complete a manageable size because the startup is the most expensive period." Allen added "This is a small investment when you consider that ten thousand riders a day will be drawn to the community and engaged in the economic revitalization of the neighborhood."

The LA Streetcar presentation came the day after the 20th anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act, prompting several questions about accessibility and integration with the street design. Modern Streetcar designs incorporate nostalgic elements but on a foundation of innovation that resolves ADA access issues of days gone by. From island ramp access to streetcar designs to street bulbouts that support safer streets for peds, cyclists, and other transit modes, the ADA advocates left confident that the LA Streetcar process was focused on moving people safely. There really is no tougher challenge, nor is there a greater endorsement.

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