A streetcar for Oakland? A student shares his plan
on July 15, 2010
At a time when Oakland is strapped for cash and seems to have no clear plan for economic revitalization, one Stanford University junior says he has the answer: a streetcar system.
To prove his point, Daniel Jacobson, a 20-year old Urban Studies student from Richmond, spent the last nine months studying Oakland’s transportation and development patterns, as well as those of Seattle and Portland, two West Coast cities that have benefitted from implementing streetcar plans. After consulting with urban development and transportation experts, including officials from Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency (CEDA), AC Transit and BART, Jacobson created a 140-page streetcar plan intended to revitalize Oakland and provide an environmentally-friendly transportation option to the city.
“I just wondered, what could Oakland do to turn things around?” Jacobson said. “What kind of project could Oakland have that would create economic development, that would reduce oil consumption, that would breathe new life into the city?”
City officials and members of CEDA agree that a streetcar system is of interest, having commissioned a $300,000 feasibility study in 2003 to determine the best way to connect Jack London Square with the rest of the city in a way that revitalizes the Broadway Corridor. The study concluded that a streetcar system would be a benefit to the city. This year the city reapplied to the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) for another $250,000 to continue the study, and officials like City Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan have shown interest in Jacobson’s version of a streetcar plan.
Later this summer, the city is planning to start service on a shuttle along Broadway from Jack London Square to Grand Avenue as the first step in implementing streetcar service.
“Streetcars have the potential to enhance commercial districts because of their wide appeal,” said Zach Seal, CEDA’s project manager of the Broadway shuttle. “People enjoy riding streetcars. The ride is very smooth and the experience is generally pleasant. And historic Oakland key system streetcars would reflect Oakland’s identity and heritage.”
Before AC Transit and BART were Oakland’s main forms of public transportation, a privately-owned mass transit company started the Key System in 1903, which linked ten East Bay cities and San Francisco by electric railcars, ferries, and streetcars. While the Key System was sold and became AC Transit in 1960, a streetcar system still exists in San Francisco—most famously in the form of the classic trolleys that are seen around the city on a daily basis.
After Oakland’s 2003 study was completed, the streetcar plan was put aside because the Bush administration provided little federal funding for developing a streetcar project. When President Obama took office last year, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood changed the criteria for receiving a federal transportation grant, making streetcar plans more competitive. The city council unanimously voted to pick the 2003 plan back up, but with some additions. The city plans to expand the streetcar route from the 12th Street BART station, as was recommended in 2003, up to the Kaiser and Alta Bates medical centers and over to the MacArthur BART station.
The city’s version of a working streetcar plan could be a reality within the next five years, as long as federal grant money is secured and environmental and engineering studies are completed.
“The proposed streetcar route includes several heavily-used transit stations—including the 20th Street AC Transit hub, the Jack London Amtrak station, the waterfront ferry terminal, and three prominent BART stations—but connections from these stations to final destinations is problematic,” said Seal, referring to the transit needs that a streetcar plan would fulfill. “No single transit line travels from the waterfront to Grand Avenue and northward, and no transit line links MacArthur BART to Upper Broadway. The proposed streetcar would solve the lack of continuity between these districts by establishing connections with all of the transit modes along the route and linking the neighborhoods between them.”
Establishing this connection would start with the new Broadway shuttle. “We really see the transit shuttle, which is being launched with vehicles that don’t require tracks, as a first step toward weaving together this important social corridor,” said Oakland City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Rebecca Kaplan. “And then the streetcar would essentially be phase two of the same vision.”
Jacobson was inspired to find a way to bring streetcars to Oakland by watching the now-failed BART to Oakland airport connector project unfold; the project was scrapped because BART could not comply with federal guidelines that would have provided federal grant money to build the connector. He also knew of the city’s 2003 streetcar study and the attempt to fund it again this year.
“I thought, what if I tried to revive this [streetcar] idea?” he said. “I felt like being at Stanford, I had and the resources and network to create a plan that Oakland had been talking about doing but hadn’t been able to execute.”
To do so, Jacobson received a $1,275 grant from the Stanford Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, of which he spent $987, mainly on a research trip to Portland and Seattle to study how to transfer those cities’ successes to Oakland.
Jacobson’s plan calls for a two and a half mile streetcar line that would run the length of Broadway, from Jack London Square up to Piedmont Avenue. The track would connect the waterfront and the Amtrak/Capital Corridor station to Chinatown and Old Oakland, as well as the downtown, uptown, the planned upper Broadway retail district, and the Kaiser and Alta Bates medical centers. According to his plan, the project would cost between $87 and $92 million to implement and about $3 million a year to operate.
There are some differences between Jacobson’s plan and the city’s ideas—for instance, the city plans to connect the MacArthur BART station to the streetcar as well. And there are some parts of Jacobson’s plan, like his cost figures, that officials aren’t ready to commit to, saying the final costs could be fine-tuned after the current feasibility study is completed. City officials expect the system to cost $80 – $100 million to install. Still, Seal called Jacobson’s plan “impressive” and said city officials will take it very seriously as they move ahead with the next steps of the feasibility study.
Before any federal grant money can be secured to build the streetcar system, the city must fulfill a federal requirement by conducting an alternative analysis to make sure streetcars are the right choice for Oakland. State and federal requirements also state that the city must conduct both an environmental study and a technical engineering study to determine what, if any, challenges would be found underneath Oakland’s streets. The studies could cost upwards of $1 million by the time the city is finished with them, Seal said, but the cost would save time and money when building the rail system.
Seal said no money would be used from the city’s general fund to pay for the project; any city funding would come from the redevelopment districts in which the streetcar system would run—the Broadway/MacArthur/San Pablo and Central districts. The city would also apply for a federal streetcar grant, which could pay for up to $75 million of the project.
Regional transportation grants could cover portions of the cost, but the city may also explore the creation of a Transportation Business Improvement District (TBID) in which property owners along the streetcar route could vote to self-impose a property tax assessment to help fund the project if they agreed that a streetcar system would be a good investment for their neighborhood. Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and other cities have created or are considering the formation of such districts to help pay for their streetcar systems.
Kaplan said she was “pleased” by Jacobson’s plan and his desire to improve the city. “[The plan] does a lot to help highlight the importance of this project,” she said.
Jacobson began thinking about how to revitalize Oakland through serving as an “attorney” at the Donald P. McCullum Youth Court, which provides intervention services for first-time juvenile offenders from Oakland and provides opportunities for local youth to volunteer. He hopes a development project like the streetcar system will help bring new jobs to the city and reverse the trends of unemployment, crime, and lack of opportunity.
“This shows you the amount of potential that’s in downtown Oakland,” Jacobson said, pointing to a picture in the plan of a vacant parking lot. “Where you have these new developments that are fairly successful and are really doing a lot to bring people downtown, you also still have big slabs of concrete that do little to contribute to the economic health of the city. There’s been a lot of success in redeveloping the Fox Theater, but there’s still a lot that can be done. It’s only the tip of the iceberg.”
Jacobson takes heart from how Portland has been revitalized in the last 15 years thanks to its streetcar system. The city transformed an abandoned rail yard and industrial district into 10,000 new housing units as well as office and retail space, bringing in jobs and residents. “Most of all, [the streetcar] made an attractive urban environment where people really want to live,” he said. “It’s covered in sidewalk cafes and small retail shops and these great parks.”
Jacobson also said that streetcar-oriented development in Portland now boasts a 31 percent housing affordability rate, which he called “amazing,”and noted that Oakland’s rate is only 15 percent in the downtown area and 20 percent in the uptown development. “This neighborhood [in Portland], this is what you talk about when you talk about livable, sustainable, equitable, and prosperous,” Jacobson said. “I tried to show in my plan that that type of neighborhood is possible in Oakland.”
Seal and other officials at CEDA see a future streetcar system as a positive step not only for providing additional transportation to underutilized parts of the city, but also as a deterrent for blight issues. “A streetcar system would motivate developers to make significant investments in their property because they know the streetcar line is going to be there for a long time,” said Seal. He noted that developers will see the streetcar tracks laid in the street and understand that the streetcar won’t be re-routed, the way bus lines or other forms of transit often are. “Because the streetcars are so popular, it helps to brand all of the districts along the routes and makes living in the area and visiting areas served by streetcars a lot more appealing,” Seal said.
Now that he’s shared it with city officials, Jacobson plans to step away from his Oakland streetcar plan, saying a “true professional” would need to come in to help the city implement the idea. Still, he calls the plan a comprehensive roadmap for city leaders and planners to follow should they decide to, and says he wants to continue drawing up plans like these after he graduates from Stanford in 2012.
“I’m very much a realist. I’m not saying this is going to solve all of Oakland’s issues and it’s not going to transform downtown and upper Broadway by itself,” Jacobson said. “With certain policies that would encourage transit-oriented development and really work with developers to create more affordable housing and make the upper Broadway retail district happen—the Oakland streetcar can really be a catalyst for all of that. It would really provide the structure and stimulus to start to turn things around. It’d be a great first step.”
City officials say the first part of the streetcar plan, the new shuttle connecting Grand Avenue to Jack London Square, will open later this summer and will be free to the public. The full version of Jacobson’s plan can be read on his website.
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