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LA streetcar project moving forward, though questions persist

The plan to bring streetcars back to downtown Los Angeles just took another step forward, but issues surrounding its cost and usefulness continue to afflict the project.

City officials have been working on a modern streetcar plan since 2008, modeled after one launched by Portland, Oregon, seven years earlier.

"If you take a subway you don't have to walk to your final destination," said Shane Philips, project director for Los Angeles Streetcar Inc., the nonprofit formed to build the project.

He said the streetcar would complement the downtown's other transit options, such as light rail and subway lines, which have more passenger capacity and ability to increase property values around routes and draw investor interest than buses.

Nationwide, however, municipalities are finding the costs of streetcars have been daunting.

Anaheim just this week pulled the brakes on its streetcar project, at least for the time being, the Orange County Register reported on Monday.

The Anaheim Rapid Connection streetcars would connect the city's transportation hub near Angel Stadium to the area around Harbor Boulevard that runs by Disneyland. But the 3.2-mile, $299 million project has been criticized for its projected cost.

The Los Angeles Department of Transportation just completed an environmental review for the streetcar project. The assessment covers route options, traffic impacts and a possible maintenance and storage facilities for the cars.

Los Angeles Streetcar Inc

The streetcars would connect destinations like L.A. Live, the museums of Bunker Hill and the nightlife of the historic core along a nearly four-mile, one-way loop.

Transit planner Yonah Freemark, who writes about streetcar issues nationwide, said L.A.’s plan has potential.

"A really strong streetcar is one with a clear route that connects people to destinations they really want to go to," Freemark said.

But because the streetcars would run at street level through car traffic, original projections anticipated speeds as slow as 3.5 miles an hour. Latest estimates peg the speeds at about six miles an hour at peak times. Freemark is still skeptical.

"The truth is that people are not going to want to take advantage of a system that’s so slow," he said.

But Philips defends the utility of the streetcar: "It's certainly much faster than walking. I think it's important just to think about how fast a car is going during peak hours downtown."

There is also a question of the cost, which has grown steadily since planning of the system was launched — increasing from $125 million in initial estimates to $280 million, factoring in contingencies.

Officials are still looking for ways to fill a funding gap for the project of about $200 million and are seeking federal funds and private partners to close it.

A proposed Metro ballot measure could also help raise the needed funds with a sales tax increase that would go before voters this November. The streetcar project, however, is not high on Metro's list of projects to fund, given a planned groundbreaking in 2053.

Philips with Los Angeles Streetcar Inc. said he hopes, if the ballot measure is approved, officials can find a way to leverage the funds earlier to break ground for the streetcar operation by 2020 or 2030.