For at least a decade Oakland has pined after a modern streetcar system linking Jack London Square with Uptown and North Oakland along the Broadway corridor. It spent $300,000 studying the viability of such a line between 2003 and 2005, and starting in May it will launch an updated eighteen-month study with an equally hefty price tag.
The past feasibility study came down in favor of a streetcar line, but ultimately fell by the wayside due to federal funding shortages and other shortcomings of the plan. In recent years Oakland officials have hoped to revive the idea, and last summer the city was finally awarded a $300,000 grant from Caltrans to initiate a new study. According to project manager Zach Seal, the study will analyze the projected cost of the line, which would run from Jack London Square to MacArthur BART; the potential design of the cars; and the comparative speed, capacity, reliability, and potential for economic development of a streetcar versus a simple bus line.
The question of economic development is crucial, as the streetcar would be sold as an economic engine first and a transportation project second. “The tracks convey a sense of permanence, so developers are more likely to build and retailers to locate along a streetcar line,” Seal said. In Portland, more than $3.5 billion in private investment has followed the construction of a four-mile streetcar line, completed in 2001 for $100 million. That’s exactly the sort of return Oakland is hoping to achieve, supporting the revitalization of Jack London Square, Downtown, and Uptown.
The project is a spiritual descendant of streetcar lines in Oakland dating back to the early 1900s, and a more direct extension of Oakland’s existing Broadway Shuttle. The eighteen-month-old “Free B” operates on an annual budget of $770,000 and results in $9.9 million in annual purchases along the route, according to the city’s calculations.
When the study concludes in late 2013, the city will have a better idea of whether or not it can proceed with the project — but it will still require additional research and, of course, funding. “If after the first phase the project is deemed viable and feasible, then we would continue to pursue it,” Seal said. Construction would take another three to five years.