A streetcar, or a “trolley” running on tracks in the street, might be in the works for Providence. Last year the city received a $13 million “TIGER” grant from the US DOT for preliminary work on a streetcar line. It was recently reported that the city was indeed seeking proposals for its planning and engineering. But in December 2014 its proposed route, originally to go from near RI Hospital to the East Side, was changed so that the streetcar would not go through the tunnel to the East Side but instead terminate at the train station. This reduces the length from 2.1 to 1.6 miles and the projected cost from about $117 to $100 million. About 2,900 daily riders was projected.
To fund the full construction, the city may consider issuing about $50 million in bonds, to be paid back by a “TIF” that is, tax increment financing whereby taxes on the enhanced property values in the area that the streetcar is expected to generate will be used to repay the bonds. The project would still need another $30 million or so to be fully funded. If the enhanced property taxes do inadequately materialize, the city would still have to pay back the bonds.
Apparently Mayor Jorge Elorza and Council President Luis Aponte think this is a good bet. Reportedly, Mr. Aponte believed further federal funding is likely as Providence is the only New England city seeking to build a streetcar. I’ll note the next round of TIGER grant applications to are due in June but I’m not aware of any public input into what the city or state apply for.
Reactions to the streetcar are mixed. City leaders and other supporters believe it will spur economic growth and jobs by attracting developers, entrepreneurs and millennials and there is some evidence that this can happen as developers like the assurance that tracks in the streets provide. There will be construction jobs as this is built. Further, there are environmental benefits to electrified transportation, especially as sustainable generation increases. And this can be the basis for a larger system of electric streetcars to serve many more communities.
However, costs are high. There are both relatively few residents along the route, and relatively few commuters coming to Providence by train, though both are expected to increase. Many considering a streetcar trip can walk instead, especially with $2 fare even for short trips. Besides the still unfunded capital costs, estimated operating deficits remain about $3.2 million/year, adding significantly to RIPTA’s deficit projections.
Thus, there is concern that a streetcar could come at the expense of some bus service. The streetcar route has much overlap with bus routes that serve the train station and the jewelry district. While no buses actually now go directly from the rail station to the hospitals, this will change when the new bus hub by the train station that voters already approved is implemented. RIPTA could also simply try a shuttle bus between the rail station and hospitals to check on the demand.
So it could be an economic boon or a costly failure. The Providence City Council Finance Committee is holding a hearing on authorizing a TIF district for this project 6pm on Thursday, May 14. It may be the only opportunity to weigh in with your suggestions.
Barry Schiller, former RIPTA Board member and long-time transit advocate, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org