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State Lawmakers Want to Revive Buffalo’s Streetcars

Some New York legislators have proposed using federal infrastructure funds to revive the city’s streetcars, providing a nostalgic alternative to the bus. But transit advocates think the money should be used elsewhere.

(TNS) — New York's Skyway and the Kensington and Scajaquada expressways get the most attention when talk turns to which projects to prioritize when seeking an expected windfall of federal infrastructure funds.

But another idea, one that hearkens to another era, is gaining traction among Assembly members: They want streetcars to make a comeback.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes sees streetcars as an alternative for those who are reluctant to take the bus.

"I think any level of transportation that has historic value and a level of nostalgia would be good for the City of Buffalo," Peoples-Stokes said. "Any value you add to public transportation that makes it easier for people to get around is a good value."

More research is needed, she said, but the Buffalo Democrat added she is "excited" about the prospect.

Six Assembly members and two state senators discussed the idea with Gov. Andrew Cuomo earlier this month, and the Assembly members presented streetcars as one of the region's two top priorities in a letter they sent in March to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

But transit advocates say it would waste resources better spent on other ways to move people around, especially in Buffalo, where those in 28 percent of households don't own a car.

"I think they're over-romanticizing the optics of streetcars," said Simon Husted of Buffalo Transit Riders United, who sits on the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's citizen advisory committee.

The limits of public transportation in Buffalo, he said, can demoralize people who can't afford a car or whose medical or legal reasons prevent them from owning one.

Husted would rather see funds spent on rapid bus lines that offer high frequency and better quality of service.
Besides, he said, bringing back a streetcar system could take decades.

Still, pursuing streetcars would not make Buffalo an outlier. Twenty-six North American cities have turned to streetcars since 2000, including Milwaukee, Kansas City, Atlanta and Portland, Ore., said Bruce Fisher, director of the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at SUNY Buffalo State.

Fisher suggests a 6.1-mile trek from the downtown Amtrak Station, past Larkinville to Bailey Avenue and then along Bailey, ultimately ending at the Ridge Road Park & Ride lot near Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens.

Fisher estimates the cost at $35 million per mile, or a little more than $210 million for the entire stretch.

The route would benefit from a built-in ridership heading to their workplaces, schools and homes, and attract people going to the Botanical Gardens, Our Lady of Victory Basilica or downtown, he said.

Another route, he said, could follow Amherst Street from Niagara Street to Bailey, a 4.6-mile stretch that Fisher estimated would cost $150 million.

"We can do something transformative that actually meets the needs of our people," Fisher said, and address "the crushing need for reliable, convenient, efficient and frequent public transportation."

Money and Hydropower

The way federal infrastructure dollars will be disbursed could help those seeking to bring streetcars to Western New York.

"The federal government prioritizes 'Building Back Better' in a sustainable way that reconnects communities, and along with being an appealing feature for Buffalo, that's what a streetcar system would do," said Assemblyman Pat Burke.

The three other proposed megaprojects — decking a portion of the Kensington to restore Humboldt Parkway, realigning the Scajaquada and removing the Skyway — would vie for money set aside for roads and bridges in President Biden's proposed package of $115 billion.

But streetcar funds would come from money reserved for public transit, about $85 billion in Biden's plan.

Current congressional negotiations could change either amount.

Aside from money, hydropower generated in the region can help.

"This project makes a whole lot of sense in a place like Buffalo, because we already had a full streetcar grid at one time, and we have underutilized hydropower plants to the north of us," Burke said.

And then there's Alstom, one of the world's largest manufacturers of streetcars whose operations include a plant in Hornell and a signal division in Rochester. The streetcars the company builds in Hornell traverse cities around the world.

"I've been in 10 European medium-sized cities — all smaller than Buffalo — and Alstom makes them all in Hornell," Fisher said.

"We've got the power right here and the streetcars are made here, keeping the money in the region," Fisher said.

Streetcars Once Everywhere

Streetcars were a common sight in Buffalo during the first half of the 20th century.

A map of Buffalo's public transit system in 1935 showed nearly 220 miles of streetcars and bus routes, stretching out in all directions, including a line that ran between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. A horse-car line began in 1860, and the system was electrified in 1891.

Streetcars even reached Lancaster, said Assemblywoman Monica Wallace, whose district includes the town.

But by 1950, the streetcars were gone. There were complaints at the time that International Railway Company, the system's owner, failed to invest in its streetcars and make improvements. Privately owned cars were becoming popular, making express streetcars impossible.

There was also a convergence of financial interests — the auto, highway, tire and roadbuilding industries, among them — that historians have found helped erode and ultimately dismantle streetcar systems in Los Angeles, Detroit and other major cities.

In 1986, a 6.4-mile light rail line was completed in Buffalo along Main Street. But that was it for what was originally envisioned to be a 46-mile system. The above-ground part of Metro Rail led to the removal of downtown automobile traffic on Main Street, but cars have returned in recent years to portions of Main along the surface tracks.

Streetcars and light rail cars share many of the same characteristics. But generally light rail cars are larger and travel along more dedicated lanes and off-street tracks on longer route lengths with fewer stops than streetcars, according to transit expert Jarrett Walker.

Streetcars can also operate in subways, like in Boston, and they typically operate slower than light rail or buses.

"The City of Buffalo no longer has the population density to justify slow-moving rail transit," said Elizabeth Giles, an executive board member for Citizens for Regional Transit.

Electrified buses are better, she said.

"I have yet to hear an argument why electric buses wouldn't be just as good or better than a streetcar when the function is to give local service on neighborhood streets," Giles said.

"And very importantly, you have the flexibility with the routing," she said. "Once you lay track, it's there."

Husted said light rail in Cleveland, where he worked for several years, went more places than Buffalo's line but was still limiting in where he could go, so he relied on buses more.

"The rail line had an appeal and Instagram friendliness, but when it came to getting you where you needed to go, it was buses that were the workhorses," Husted said.

Streetcars in Vogue

In the 26 cities that turned to streetcars since 2000, most have shorter routes than the ones Fisher suggested.

The 2.1-mile Hop line opened in Milwaukee in November 2018 and drew over 800,000 riders in its first year. A 2.4-mile line is being added, with plans for further expansion.

So is Buffalo large enough to support a bustling streetcar system?

Milwaukee, like Buffalo, is a Rust Belt city, but it has a population of 587,721 compared with Buffalo's 255,284.

Fisher thinks the city's density makes it an ideal location for streetcars. He also said studies show higher real estate values and economic activity typically follow streetcars, making them popular with developers and tourists.

Assemblywoman Monica Wallace thinks streetcars could be a valuable way to bring people to their workplaces.

"The reality is, the No. 1 thing I hear from employers in my community is the inability to get people to their jobs," Wallace said. "We know when businesses like Amazon are thinking about relocating, they take into account what the public transportation system is like."

Burke thinks it's time for federally funded transit priorities to shift from subsidizing roads and highways to public transit and passenger rail.

"People just take it for granted that that's just the way things work, but it's not the way things have to work," Burke said.

Now that the Biden administration has opened the door to more public transit funds, Burke hopes Buffalo can come up with a visionary plan that can have a generational impact.

"If we are going to do big projects, this is the time we put everything on the table and have a discussion about what are the best, most transformative big-scale infrastructure projects for our region," Burke said. "I think this is one that deserves to be considered."

(c)2021 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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