Streetcars back in Westside’s future
Downtown lines to go in first, with 2031-2035 time frame seen for Colorado Avenue corridor
It may take another quarter-century, but streetcars have a tentative timetable now for a comeback along West Colorado/Manitou Avenue.
A line from the downtown to Manitou Springs (called the “western extension”) is prioritized only fifth out of seven in the construction sequence of a city streetcar system. The work would start in the downtown core, phasing in three segments between 2011 and 2025, according to conceptual plans in the recently released “Colorado Springs Streetcar Feasibility Study.” Next to come (the fourth highest priority), would be a “northern extension” from the core to Garden of the Gods Road, near UCCS. The study-anticipated time frame for this work is 2026 to 2030.
The 9.2-mile “western extension” could be built between 2031 and 2035, the study states.
Published in June, the study was prepared over the preceding 10 months by the URS consulting company. Citizen input was sought at public meetings in the downtown area and at UCCS. Funding came from a federal grant, matched by $58,000 that was put up by downtown commercial interests, Colorado College and UCCS.
The conceptual cost to build the entire system, including the western extension, would be $725 million, with an annual operating and maintenance (O&M) cost of $13.9 million, the study states. (Note: The O&M amount was reached by inflating the current $92.94 cost per vehicle hour for city buses by 30 percent “to account for items such as electrification and guideway maintenance,” the study states.)
None of this funding currently exists. Money from fares would pay at most 25 percent of the O&M, based on URS research into modern streetcar systems in other cities, including Seattle, Tacoma, Little Rock and Portland.
Colorado Springs City Council, while supporting the idea during a presentation by the volunteer Streetcar Taskforce at its June 22 meeting, showed no willingness to use city funds. However, supporters think federal grants will be available. In addition, the study suggests a wide range of traditional and non-traditional funding sources, from city taxes to naming rights, from bond sales to special districts, from a share of increased city parking rates to partnerships with private entities (such as the Air Force Academy or Colorado College). “A lot depends on the political climate,” said Val Snider, chair of the Streetcar Taskforce, in a recent interview.
The actual study sponsor was Mountain Metropolitan Transit. The entity currently provides bus routes throughout the Colorado Springs metro area. Although these have been cut back drastically because of city budget issues, Mountain Metro is interested in streetcars because of a history in other cities - as described in the study - of their attracting private funding, greater ridership than buses and redevelopment along their corridors.
Although the study presents different options, the expectation is that streetcars will share the right-hand traffic lanes with cars and not eliminate any on-street parking, according to Dave Lippincott, a member of the non-profit Pikes Peak Historical Street Railway Foundation, which has been actively seeking a return of Colorado Springs streetcars since the 1990s. Lippincott also owned Surplus City in the 2800 block of Colorado Avenue for 21 years before closing that business in 2006.
The foundation's efforts have involved advocacy, research and restoration work on several historic streetcars - with the idea of putting them in service someday - from its former Rock Island railroad roundhouse/museum south of Fillmore Street just east of I-25.
In 1997, Colorado Springs voters approved a ballot issue that gave the foundation a 25-year streetcar franchise. At that time, the primary corridor was to be Colorado/Manitou Avenue, reprising Winfield Stratton's Colorado Springs & Interurban Railway streetcar line that had run from 1908 to 1932.
But by the time the new study was readying to start in early 2009, the situation had changed. The main interest was from the downtown; also, there were (and still are) high anticipated costs to relocate utilities under West Colorado Avenue and to flatten the currently crowned street “to keep the cars from tipping over,” as Lippincott put it in a recent interview. As a result, he and a Mountain Metro representative predicted then that a corridor through the Westside would not be part of the new study.
However, after URS got started, Lippincott said it seemed like a good idea “to project what would ultimately happen after the first segment was built and enthusiasm is much higher.” He now believes that the Colorado Avenue utility and road-crown concerns, while not minor, are “nothing that can't be surmounted.”
The study also presents Highway 24 as an alternative for the western extension, but Lippincott said that several Westside merchants have told him they prefer an avenue line because it would be better for business.
The study does not address the avenue construction concerns in detail, but does note that the average present-day cost to build a streetcar system (based on the experience of other cities) is $17.5 million a mile. Lippincott believes that construction in Colorado Springs (including the Westside) would be less expensive than that, in large part because no right of way would have to be acquired.
The next step is “searching out funding” for the detailed planning and implementation of the downtown work, he said. The study says that proponents also need to “further study and conduct a more detailed alternative analysis, receive environmental clearances from the federal government and construct a starter system.” Lippincott is optimistic about the timing, saying that it's “easier now than under the Bush administration” to get federal funding for such projects.
If and when plans come into tighter focus for a West Colorado Avenue streetcar line, there are two schools of thought, at least in Old Colorado City. Don Wick, president of the Old Colorado City Associates (OCCA) business group, said he sees it as positive for commerce and believes the OCCA “would love to be involved in that venture.” On the other side is the Old Colorado City Security & Maintenance District, whose committee of Old Town property owners has expressed concern previously that the streetcars would be unsightly (by possibly exposing electric lines, after the district helped in the effort to have utility lines buried a number of years ago), would be unsafe with its tracks cut into the pavement and would get in the way of cars. “It's just enthusiasts who would like to see this happen,” said committee chair Judy Kasten.
In any case, according to Streetcar Taskforce chair Val Snider, “you can bet if we were going to do something on the Westside, we would have lots of meetings over there.”
Westside Pioneer article