Streetcars Could Return to Oakland as a Broadway Shuttle Upgrade

Far from settled, the play would cost 10 times more than improved buses, but its permanence might spur business development.


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Photo by lance yamamoto

Project manager Zach Seal likes the resulting “blockscape” offered by modern streetcars.

The city has held three public meetings at City Hall seeking input from residents and businesses. More are planned in the future, but none is scheduled yet. They will be announced at www.OaklandNet.com/BroadwayTransit.

The city council voted unanimously to spend grant money to study the issue and will review the study in June when the council will decide whether to do more studies. Will streetcars lure more riders than buses?

The green buses now rolling down Broadway attracted 760,000 riders in 2013, with some 2,700 on weekdays and 1,000 on Friday and Saturday nights. The corridor they would connect is one of the busiest in the country, with 10 million commuters a year using the two BART stations, the Amtrak Capitol Corridor trains, the SF Bay Ferry, and the AC Transit Uptown Center.

Choosing buses over trains would mean buying new buses that were at curb level, so patrons didn’t have to climb up steps, building flashier bus stops, and equipping them with switches that would turn traffic lights green as the buses approach.

Both buses and trains would have prepaid ticket machines to speed up boarding. Should the city decide to go the more expensive route, Seal says there would be federal funds available as well as county sales tax money and possibly a district in which businesses that benefit from the streetcars would be assessed taxes.

“They would vote to create an improvement district if they felt the assessment they would pay would be an investment, if it increases property values and attracts major employers and tenants,” he says.

Outgoing Mayor Jean Quan, who supported BART’s still-controversial airport connector, says a streetcar is something people will appreciate 20 years in the future.

“We are going back to the future,” she says. “We are trying to be a very green city with a lot of public transportation and to develop housing along those corridors. As the city expands, and particularly Jack London Square with more housing, more transportation down Broadway will be helpful. I think you have to plan for 20 years ahead. No one is going to thank you for that now.”

City planners are considering adding a new jewel to booming downtown Oakland–a streetcar that would string together the thriving districts along the Broadway corridor like pearls on a necklace.

The city is in the middle of a $300,000 study about beefing up the urban transit system, either with streetcars or an enhanced bus system. At an estimated $205 million, laying streetcar tracks is 10 times more expensive than an improved bus line, but some cities have seen significant economic development because they can bank on the permanence of tracks.

The East Bay, of course, is no stranger to streetcars, being the longtime home to the successful and intricate web of transit known as the Key System. The privately owned commuter rail system linked streetcars and bus lines from San Leandro to Richmond and on to San Francisco, first by ferry, then via the lower deck of the old Bay Bridge. Ultimately, General Motors, Firestone, and Standard Oil of California bought up the nation’s electric railway systems, including the Key System, to make way for cars and buses, and pulled the plug on the Key System in 1950–a crime that will live in infamy.

The new Oakland system would run from Jack London Square, along Broadway to the MacArthur Bart station, much of the same route covered by the free Broadway shuttle bus line, the B. It would pass near Chinatown, City Center, Uptown, Valdez Triangle, Koreatown and, ultimately, Temescal.

“Oakland is fortunate,” says Zach Seal, an economic development specialist who heads the project. “We have thriving districts with their own identities. We want to find a way to stitch the neighborhoods together.”

Sparked by federal funds and environmental concerns, a dozen cities have revived streetcar systems across the country, including Portland, Seattle, Tucson, Cincinnati, and Phoenix. Proponents say the city rail lines encourage businesses to put down roots near them. Opponents answer that in tight economic times buses could be a better buy.

“If you want to attract the best and brightest employees, your office has to be somewhere where employees can leave their cars at home and take public transit,” says Seal. Modern streetcars are smaller and ride more smoothly than their historical counterparts. They also have large windows that connect riders to the businesses around them–the “blockscape,” as Seal calls it.

Portland’s streetcar system drew $3.5 billion of investment from businesses that wanted to be near the line, starting even before ground was broken, says Seal. Amazon chose to build its Seattle headquarters only after the company was guaranteed that a streetcar line would run by it, he added.

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