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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Take the Tram

Why in 2010 does it often take twice as long to get from the North Shore to the Five Towns than it does to get from Mineola to White Plains? Cars are choking our roads, gas prices are threatening our economic viability. We need alternative ways to move around this county. It’s time for the trolleys to return.

 

Modern, supercool versions of streetcars, trolleys and trams are making a welcome comeback in American communities, some of which look very much like Long Island. One major turning point was the opening of the excellent Portland (Oregon) streetcar system in 2001. Then, last year, five communities (Dallas, Detroit, New Orleans, Portland and Tucson) got a total of $178 million in competitive federal stimulus grants to begin building or expanding street lines.

Twenty-two communities in the United States, some as suburban as you can get, are drawing up blueprints for streetcars or are putting rails on the ground. Here’s the list: Arlington (Virginia); Atlanta; Baltimore; Boise; Charlotte; Cincinnati; Columbus (Ohio); Dallas; Fort Lauderdale; Fort Worth; Grand Rapids; Kenosha (Wisconsin); Lake Oswego (Oregon); Little Rock; Los Angeles; New Orleans; Providence; Sacramento; Salt Lake City; San Antonio; Tucson; Washington, D.C.

Arlington and Fairfax counties in Northern Virginia, two of America’s best-known suburbs, plan to split the costs of building a 4.7-mile streetcar line, running every six minutes during rush hour. Lake Oswego, outside of Portland, is one of America’s most affluent suburbs, with a high median household income. If they can visualize something better for residents than crawling along the turnpike smacking their hand against the steering wheel and sighing, then so can Long Islanders.

At least 14 more communities are seriously planning to make plans.

Look at video and photos of Portland, Oregon’s trolleys. There’s video all over the web. The Portland streetcars are beautiful. They’re sleek, modern and colorful. They’re even designed to be easily accessible to people with strollers and wheelchairs. Some Long Island governments want to spend federal stimulus money on road projects and parking garages. Portland wants to spend the money on extending the trolleys another 3.3 miles. Dozens of American municipalities are thinking of replicating what’s been happening in Portland. Zero municipalities are thinking of replicating Long Island’s transportation model. The future is speaking.

The rap against financially-workable public transportation in the suburbs has usually been the low population density. Portland’s population density is 4,288 people per square mile, which is less than that of Nassau County (4,652), less than half that of the Village of Mineola, less than a third that of the Village of Hempstead and only slightly higher than that even of the Village of Garden City. This isn’t your grandfather’s Nassau County.

But just so you don’t think this is all about playing with trains or feeling good about ourselves for being really green, you should know this about Portland. Since the streetcars came, 53 percent of downtown development occurred along the streetcar line. Private investors, knowing a winner when they see it, have put $3.5 billion into the line. Surveys estimate that about 30 percent more people ride in the streetcars than would have ridden buses if that was the only option.

Trams can move people between malls and industrial areas to local downtowns. If done well, they can become a local economic engine that helps maintain this as an area to which people want to move, work and raise families.

In the past, many Long Islanders considered the existence of any kind of public transportation to be a threat to the affluence and autonomy represented by a single-family house in the suburbs. Most Long Islanders and potential Long Islanders my age and younger do not share these fears. There were trolleys on our main roads throughout the first quarter of the last century, when the Long Island suburban dream was born.

There can still be a suburban dream here, but it can’t be the dream of 1960. Not anymore. We need a better, more adaptable dream that will sustain a high quality of living. Trolleys can be part of what comes next.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net