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Streetcars Help Fuel Job Growth in Seattle

By Kevin Osborne · August 31st, 2011 · Porkopolis
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Here’s something that the backward-thinking Luddites who oppose Cincinnati’s planned streetcar system won’t tell you: A plan to convert a rundown part of Seattle into a district targeted to attracting the so-called “creative class” has worked better than expected — and the success partially is due to a new streetcar system.

Danny Westneat, a columnist for The Seattle Times, wrote about that city’s booming South Lake Union neighborhood in the Aug. 27 edition. His column should be required reading for any Cincinnati voter who remains undecided about his or her stance on the local streetcar system.

The streetcar there, which opened in mid-2007, was part of a wider project to redevelop South Lake Union pushed by billionaire developer Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft. As a result, the project often is referred to as “Allentown” by Seattle residents.

So far, the project has created 14,000 new jobs in the area, which is about 30 percent ahead of estimates. Overall, the project is expected to create 23,000 jobs by 2020.

Westneat is quick to note that some of the jobs have moved from elsewhere in the city. And he also points out that some of the gain is due to the growth of Amazon.com, the online retailer based in South Lake Union, as well as investments in medical research and biotechnology firms by Bill Gates, the other, more famous Microsoft founder.

Westneat, initially a skeptic about the project, interviewed economist Paul Sommers about the reasons for the boom in the South Lake Union area.

Westneat wrote:

“Sommers also underestimated the pace of residential development, he said. It’s debatable how much of Allentown would have come to be anyway, without the city investing hundreds of millions in streets, sewers, power lines and a streetcar. The argument, which I made at times myself, was that this public subsidy was ‘billionaire welfare.’ That Allen, of all people, didn’t need it, and other parts of town did.”

Westneat’s column added:

“Sommers says we may never know the answer to that. His view is the city did only ‘what cities are supposed to do, which is provide infrastructure.’

Westneat’s earlier worries about “other parts of town” needing the investment is basically the argument being used by Christopher Smitherman, a local NAACP leader who is running for Cincinnati City Council.

Smitherman has worked in conjunction with the ultra-conservative, anti-mass-transit Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) to place an initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot.

If approved by voters, the initiative would prohibit Cincinnati from building any streetcar system at least through Dec. 31, 2020. Because the initiative also prohibits any design or planning work for a system, in reality it likely blocks any such project for at least 15 years.

I’m not sure Smitherman’s stated reason for opposing the streetcar project is his true motivation. After all, this is the same man who once alleged that a proposal to create a regional water district — which backers said would’ve reduced water rates — might allow city officials to pump polluted water or diseases like syphilis into African-American communities. The college-educated Smitherman surely couldn’t have believed this, but it helped solidify his political power base. And he does like to end his pronouncements on Twitter and Facebook with the smarmy, condescending phrase, “Politics 101!”

Smitherman, however, enjoys wrapping his opposition to the streetcar in feigned concern for other neighborhoods. It plays better to voters.

But let’s consider some numbers. Even if just one-fourth of those new jobs along Seattle’s streetcar segment is due to the residential growth, that accounts for 3,500 positions.

Can you imagine 3,500 new jobs coming to Cincinnati’s urban core? That’s nothing to sneeze at, especially with the currently high unemployment rate.

Streetcar critics like Smitherman and ex-Congressman Tom Luken have tried to scare voters about the project’s fortunes ever since Gov. John Kasich led a successful push to rescind $52 million in state funding. As a result, the system was scaled back and segments to the University of Cincinnati and the riverfront will be postponed until later.

Here’s an important factor to remember: Even taking into account the recent reduction in size for its first phase, Seattle’s system in South Lake Union is shorter than the one planned here.

That’s right, shorter.

The current Cincinnati project consists of a 3.1-mile loop between downtown’s Government Square and Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine. Its route is slightly less than 1.6 miles in each direction, and the project will cost about $95 million to build.

By comparison, Seattle’s newest streetcar segment — just the latest portion in a broader system that dates back to 1982 — connects downtown to the Denny Triangle and South Lake Union districts. It is roughly 1.3 miles in each direction, or 2.6 miles in total.

The South Lake Union segment cost $47.5 million to build. Its cheaper price tag is due to several factors, primarily that streetcars there run both directions on the same street — as opposed to running on two parallel streets, as they would here — for about 60 percent of its length, which saves money in power distribution and utility work.

Also, Seattle’s system uses three cars on its 2.6 track-miles, while Cincinnati’s will have five cars covering 3.1 miles.

Nevertheless, if a smaller system in Seattle can produce such a sizable impact, Cincinnati’s system should perform in a comparable manner.

Studies have indicated the local streetcar system would spark nearly $1.4 billion in new development, which means it would produce — when adjusted in today’s value — up to $2.70 in economic activity for every $1 invested. A total of 92 acres of land in downtown and Over-the-Rhine would be affected by the project’s initial phase.

Smitherman and COAST are trying to label the streetcar as a boondoggle that won’t live up to its hype. If that’s the case, why are so many cities nationwide clamoring to create or expand their systems? The latest cities mulling streetcars include Indianapolis, Kansas City and Pittsburgh, just to name a few.

Generally, real estate developers are attracted to areas where streetcar systems are built because they represent a permanent improvement. As a result, there’s an incentive for the private-sector to invest there. We’re seeing that trend occur over and over again in other cities.

There is no sure thing in the real world, but we should take note of what works in other cities. The failure of Smitherman and COAST to do so reveals their short-sightedness and willful ignorance.

Or, as Westneat writes in his column, sometimes “we don’t notice what does work, even when it’s right in front of our eyes.”


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