Reviving the Grand Rapids Streetcar: Modernizing Classic Transportation

This summer, the Rapid is rolling out the Silver Line, bringing Bus Rapid Transit to Division Avenue in Grand Rapids. The infrastructure is nearly complete and buses will be purchased and running by this August. Grand Rapids isn’t taking a breath, though. The city is already working on its next project – reviving the streetcar through downtown Grand Rapids.

Grand Rapids is living up to its reputation for progress by attempting to bring back this historic mode of transportation, but with a new spin. The modern vehicles will be made to look like the old ones, but they will be powered by green electric technology. In 1926, Grand Rapids was a national leader in streetcar innovation with its electric coach (source). The electric coach enjoyed great success in the city until 1935, when street lines were torn out due to increasing automobile ownership.

Cover Grand Rapids Street Car

A picture of the 1926 Grand Rapids Streetcar Parade coming down Monroe Ave (source)

This staple mode of transportation for American history is being re-vamped in many cities such as Portland, Seattle and Tuscon, which all have seen positive results from reviving their streetcar systems. Grand Rapids is following suit. An initial feasibility report was completed in 2008, but updates are being made to account for the major development that Grand Rapids has had in the past 5 years. A vast advance in streetcar technology also will be incorporated into the plan.

I spoke with Rod Ghearing, manager of grants and capital projects at the Rapid, a Trans4M member, on its involvement in the process. The Rapid is working with the Federal Transit Administration to bring planning funds to the table and confirm that the project is in compliance with FTA regulations. The guiding entity for the project is the Streetcar Advisory Committee, headed by former Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie.

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The initial route established for the study (source)

In an interview with WGVU, former Grand Rapids Mayor Logie expressed his excitement for the potential project and the benefits it would bring to Grand Rapids. “It’s that permanent commitment that’s being made that attracts new investment,” Logie said. This kind of investment will expand the distances that pedestrians are able to travel, which expands the areas which are available for development or redevelopment, especially in central business districts.

Logie and others expect a high return on investment with the implementation of a streetcar. Total capital costs are estimated around $78,755,000. Based on routes and ridership estimates, annual operating costs would be approximately $1.75 million. These initial capital investments are expected to come from private contributions, advertising rights and revenues from formation of a transportation improvement district. Half of the operating costs are expected to be covered by fare revenues and state operating funds.

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Portland’s streetcar at a curbside stop – an example of a modern streetcar system (source)

Ghearing told us that the FTA’s grant program is a competitive one. “We will have to have an application package that will meet or exceed the criteria they’ve established and that will give our application an advantage over others,” he said.

Fortunately, Grand Rapids and the Ride have a good record with getting projects done early and under budget, an advantage in getting the project funded.

Peter Varga, CEO of the Rapid, said, “Our purpose is to create something new and exciting in downtown. Something that’s going to make it more walkable, livable and hopefully attract enough private interest so that we can get a really good public-private partnership on the project.”

This kind of project would be a huge boost for Michigan, as studies have shown that increased public transportation, both transit and non-motorized transportation, is a major factor in economic development. Grand Rapids has been a symbol of progress for Michigan, and we are eager to see this project advance. Keep an eye on Trans4M for updates on the Grand Rapids Streetcar!

Written by Kajal Ravani, Trans4M Fellow 

One Comment on “Reviving the Grand Rapids Streetcar: Modernizing Classic Transportation

  1. “This staple mode of transportation for American history is being re-vamped in many cities such as Portland, Seattle and Tuscon . . . .”

    There is no city in the U.S. named “Tuscon.” There IS a Tucson, however.

    You may wish to correct the error.

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