The following guest blog is by Jeff Bezdek, who along with the Modern Transit Project led in advocacy of including a downtown streetcar system as part of MAPS 3. Due to some difficulties on photo uploads, the post was delayed a bit – but the post is still very timely.
“People like buses if they don’t have to ride them.
People like streetcars because they are not buses.”
Marilyn Strickland- Mayor of Tacoma
Dear Oklahoma City,
I am writing you from the dining car of the Amtrak Coast Starlight train. It’s been a busy few days meeting with transit officials in Seattle and Tacoma about their streetcars. I am on my way to Portland to tour their system now.
I had never been to Tacoma. Now I know why of former museum director, the late Carolyn Hill, fell in love with this place. Chihuly glass seems to be everywhere. The streetcar stops right in front of one of his biggest displays, the “bridge of glass” spanning across I-705. Oklahoma City has already gained a great deal from this “sister” city, importing some of the best North American art from this master. Perhaps the modern streetcar will be the next exciting marvel.
Coming here reminds me why we are doing this. Tacoma surprisingly has many other similarities other than the glass. It too uprooted its historic passenger rail facility for a highway. It too succumbed to the seductiveness of the automobile. The grand Union Station building still stands but has been repurposed for a federal courthouse. The city lost its inner core of vitality to the suburbs. The city transit service was compromised and quickly stigmatized.
The transit authority realized that the only way to entice new riders was to provide a superior mode of travel. Officials knew they needed something equally as seductive as the automobile. They chose the literally foreign concept of a modern streetcar. A company manufactured the cars in 2002 in the Czech Republic.
The Tacoma city council was so concerned about the potential excavation of their Main Street and the appearance of that “danged” overhead wire; they told the Sound Transit officials they had made their choice. The streetcar was to go down the “run down, back alley, abandoned store lined” street one block away from prized Main.
This early description permeated my thoughts as the brightly colored streetcar cheerfully greeted me with a “clang” of electronic bells and twinkling lights. Whirring up to a clearly marked stop, one can walk directly on board without impediment. Inside is bright and airy. A gong rings and an automated voice reminiscent of “anyone’s mother” welcomes you and tells you where “she’s” heading. You can see in nearly all directions through large glass windows. The operator is clearly visible behind a tinted glass door operating a console of lights, push buttons, and levers.
Tacoma officials made accommodations for me to ride in the cab with our operator, Jerry. Jerry expertly operated the controls with an animated flourish. He explained to me that he was a former Burlington Northern Santa Fe engineer. He told me that operating the streetcar was “one of the best experiences of his life.” In the cab we had a clear view of the entire exterior and interior of the train from strategically positioned cameras that displayed on a flat LCD screen. With a push of a button, he had the oncoming traffic signals at his command enabling him to “slice” through traffic to the next stop.
A family from a nearby suburb was down for the day with their grand kids. They had a bunch of kids. They told me that they would drive downtown, get on the streetcar for the Sunday, and let the streetcar take them to the latest sites, and there were many. The street was lined with gift shops, clothing stores, coffee shops, art galleries, and other businesses. I was shocked at how many people were “getting away” to downtown on a Sunday.
The transit officials explained that they understood the demand and responded to it. The streetcar went to the Chihuly glass, it went to their arena, it went to their businesses, and it went directly to their new convention center. In fact, it stopped directly across from it. When asked how they dealt with the crowds, they explained that they had a great working relationship with the police who would clear the way on foot with their whistles enabling the streetcars to get through the crush of pedestrians during events. They would send extra cars and “load up” as many people as they could get onboard headed to the parking garages and restaurants.
Over the day, I got off and on at various stops. It was on time, every time. When the digital board at the stops said it was coming, it came. A writer for the student newspaper of the University of Washington Tacoma branch wrote “The Link (that’s their name for the streetcar) will take off in the middle of your sprint for the door and not bother to look back to see you crying in the rain. Not to worry, another Link will be along in ten minutes.”
The Tacoma city council was shocked beyond belief when the floundering street flourished. Some wish now that the streetcar now looped onto Main too. Story after success story has followed my travels thus far. Tonight I will arrive in the “transit Mecca”, Portland, Oregon. I have talked with mayors, transit officials, planners, engineers, construction superintendants, manufacturers, train operators, and riders. There’s more to come, and possibly an exciting surprise for Oklahoma City.
Mayor Cornett once commented, “We surely don’t want a tourist ride.” I agree. This has to be a real and purposeful transit system. But a trip on Tacoma’s streetcar had every child onboard glowing and a few adults too.