Streetcars Might Make a Comeback in Oakland



Until 1958, Oakland had a system of streetcars that shuttled passengers from across the city to its Western edge, where they could catch ferries or commuter rail to San Francisco. Half a century later, streetcars may be coming back to Oakland.

On Tuesday, the Oakland City Council approved a consultant contract for a study into the viability of an extended “Free B” Shuttle route and electric streetcar system. The goal is to facilitate connections between transit hubs and commercial centers along Broadway, from the Jack London District’s Amtrak station to MacArthur BART, said Zach Seal, economic development specialist for the city. “We really see this as an opportunity to solidify Broadway as a corridor that’s a major destination for shopping and retail,” he said, “and a place where major development activity is happening.”

Seattle streetcar
  • Ian Fisher
  • Seattle streetcar

For Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, the project is also about elevating the city’s regional presence. “Transportation tends to be San Francisco-centric,” she said. “The reality is that Oakland is the center.” She believes the city’s central location makes it a natural transportation hub for the Bay Area.

The study will generate a cost estimate for the project and weigh that cost against potential economic development benefits. Seal said the plan will also consider engineering hurdles, operational logistics, and the needs of the community. The city plans to hold public meetings to get community input on the proposal.

Transportation consulting firm Fehr and Peers is leading the study, which is funded through a $299,200 Urban Transit Planning Studies grant from Caltrans. Seal said he expects the study to be done by the end of 2014. Once it’s finished, the study team will present a report to the city council, and hinging on their recommendation, the city may go forward with the next phase of studies — environmental and engineering reports.

The plan builds on an effort to stimulate downtown commerce that started with the “Free B” shuttle. The free buses that circle through Oakland’s center — from Grand Avenue down through Jack London Square — started making their rounds in 2010 as a project of the now-defunct Community and Economic Development Agency. “What it does is it links all these little nodes,” Quan said, “and it gets people out of their zone and it gets them to explore.”

The program was funded by a $500,000 grant from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), with additional grants from public and private sponsors. The air quality management district has provided yearly grant funding since then. About a third of the program’s budget comes from the district; the other two-thirds come from other public and private sources. The city pays AC Transit about $612,000 to run the shuttles, according to Clarence Johnson, AC Transit media affairs manager. The city will partner with AC transit during the study.

Seal said after the preliminary feasibility and environmental studies, the plan is to expand the free shuttle route and begin work on the streetcar system at the same time. Logistical hurdles may mean the streetcar project will lag, but eventually the rail system is meant to replace the shuttle service. The study will identify possible funding sources for both components of the plan, and Seal is optimistic. He expects the project will cost tens of millions of dollars, if Portland and Seattle’s streetcar systems are any indication, but he said there’s lots of funding available through the Federal Transit Administration and the Department of Transportation, plus local Measure B funds.

Streetcars are worth the investment, Seal said, because studies have shown their potential to catalyze mixed-use development — buildings that combine street-level retail space and residential units on upper stories — just the type of development the city hopes to bring to the Broadway-Valdez area. Seal said streetcars are good for investment because they create permanent infrastructure, and investors are more willing to commit when they see the city committing.

Seal said it’s difficult to estimate a timeline for the project, but he said we could see ground break in the next three to five years.