BRING back streetcars. Restart the trains to Chicago and Omaha. Those are the two most significant steps Iowa City could take if it wishes to turn River Crossings into a showcase of urban development.
This city, like so many others, has based most of its planning on auto-mobility -- making it easy for cars to get around. But that's not the only way people get around (or want to get around). A streetcar line on Dubuque would be a major step to reduce reliance on cars and make urban life more pleasant. So would a train to Chicago.
Streetcars, now called light rail, are making a comeback all over the US. Minneapolis now has a line from downtown to the airport and is building another to downtown St. Paul. San Diego has a line from its downtown to the Mexican border. And San Jose has several lines which crisscross the Santa Clara Valley.
I ONCE wrote a column for the Gazette proposing a light rail line along Interstate 380 between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. That line could follow the CRANDIC tracks all the way to the River Crossings district where Uptown Bill's is located.
Streetcar service once did run between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. The Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway and Light Co. started "interurban service" in 1904. It was part of a remarkable network of streetcar lines all over the United States. Most of these lines disappeared as automobiles took over the streets. Passenger service ended on the Cedar Rapids to Iowa City line -- or CRANDIC -- in 1953. But CRANDIC has survived as a short-line freight railroad.
Opponents of light rail argue that it won't work here because of the low-density urban sprawl which has been the dominant pattern of development for more than 50 years. Yet many of the California cities long associated with urban sprawl have invested in light rail.
San Jose is a good example. It now has light rail service on several lines which run 24 hours a day, seven days a week. we could do that right here in eastern Iowa, too.
WE COULD start with a street car line beginning near the historic train station on Dubuque Street. That's the station where passenger trains to Chicago used to stop -- and could again if the plan for revived passenger rail service gets enough support. The street cars could use the CRANDIC tracks which cross Dubuque Street just a few feet south of Uptown Bill's, 730 S. Dubuque St. The new passenger trains would run on the tracks just a half a block north of the coffee house.
These are not difficult steps to take. And they would be great ways to enhance the proposed River Crossings development. In fact, nothing else would have the positive impact of a streetcar line and revived passenger train service. And these could be an inspiration for other cities, including Des Moines, Council Bluffs and Sioux City.
The biggest objections to reviving street car and passenger train service revolve around the cost. It will cost several million dollars to get passenger train service restarted to Chicago. And there will have to be public funds to support service for at least several years after that. The same is true for street car service. That would require electrification of the CRANDIC line (or building a new one) which is expensive.
BUT highways are expensive, too. At least as expensive as street cars or trains. And those are paid for with public funds, too, both to build and to maintain. Yet somehow, we think of those expenditures differently.
Terry Branstad, Iowa's governor, is a good example of this kind of thinking. He says he opposes any public funds for operating expenses for the new passenger trains. But he supports millions of dollars for "operating expenses" to keep our highways in shape.
(Further, he doesn't object to taking public funds for his own transportation. For nearly half of his adult life, taxpayers have provided free public transportation for Branstad. This includes cars, drivers, planes and more.)
So instead of thinking of trains and street cars as different or out of the ordinary, why don't we think of them as part of a balanced transportation system. Cars, streetcars and trains can all be part of this plan and can all be supported with public funds.