Streetcar Financial Details to be Released Thursday

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Now that Net Jets will remain and expand in Columbus, Mayor Coleman is turning his attention to ground-based public transportation. In a meeting tonight, Coleman will release details of a financing plan that would see the return of street cars.

Standing in the small park at the corner of Long and Front streets,there’s a historical marker which recalls the Columbus streetcar strike of 1910. According to the sign it was one of the most violent strikes against a public utility in the United States. Those streetcars are long since gone but if Mayor Coleman has his way new streetcars will be rumbling up and down High Street just a few blocks away.

Well maybe not rumbling; Coleman says these new streetcars would be sleek, modern, and high-speed, not old-fashioned trolleys. The $100 million North High Street route from downtown to Ohio State University is described as the starter route. A major question still remains, though. Who is going to pay for it? Appearing on a recent edition of WOSU’s Open Line, Mayor Coleman said only that there would be no sales tax increase or increases in property taxes or the income tax.

“There is a clear economic benefit in the area, in the zone in which the street car is located, three blocks on either side or thereabouts. We’re going to create a benefit zone and the benefit is jobs, housing, opportunities, housing development, retail development; it becomes a major economic power house for this city,” Coleman said.

Coleman says city officials did a study on the economic viability and resulting benefits of streetcars in other cities, in particular the system in Portland Oregon.

“It blows your socks off. And you can quote me on that.”

That’s Kaye Dannon, Community Relations Manager for the Portland Streetcar system. She says the streetcar line, which officials describe as a central city circulator, has been a boon to the city of 600,000.

“We show since 1997, $3.5 billion in development within the streetcar development LID,” Dannon says.

The LID is the local improvement district, an area of several blocks around the street car route. People along the LID paid about 18 percent of the cost for building Portland’s eight-mile continuous loop in the late 1990s. Mayor Coleman’s benefit zone is different terminology than Portland’s and he proposes a much higher assessment.

“80 percent of it will be paid through the benefit zone,” Coleman says. “So those who benefit the most will pay for 80 percent of it. That is the concept that we’re proposing.”

The city of Tampa inaugurated an old-fashioned streetcar system in 2002. The transit system’s Ed Crawford says it was meant primarily for tourists but is also spurring redevelopment.

“I think 5,000 units of new housing are going up, either for sale or rental,” Crawford says. And so we’re developing this urban lifestyle corridor that was initially was meant to attract tourists but now its beginning to attract residents.”

Such a scenario is several years away in Columbus. If the plan goes into effect, streetcars probably won’t be on the street before 2012. But Ed Crawford in Tampa has a caveat for Columbus officials.

“No transit system makes money,” says Crawford. “So you have to assume that whatever other things that you have in mind to help accomplish for your city, it’s not going to turn a profit, or even break even. So who’s going to pay for that?”

Mayor Coleman will release financial details Thursday evening at city hall.

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