Debating the Riverside Reconnects Streetcar Project

Earlier this month, several news reports indicated that the state has granted the City of Riverside $237,500 to fund a study of returning streetcars to the city. Riverside Mayor William Rusty Bailey has been responsible for advocating such an idea.

The proposal has brought on some robust debate in the public arena and the community has been making many valid points. Here are some examples:
  • The Press Enterprise in an editorial objects to the project and points out that such public resources would be better spent toward separating the grade crossings along the existing rail line. That of course would speed up existing Metrolink, Amtrak Southwest Chief and BNSF freight service and eliminate several surface street bottlenecks. The newspaper also objects to transit service duplication. It's worth noting that RTA bus rapid transit for the existing Routes 1 and 16 have already been studied and found feasible in Riverside several times. PE Columnist Dan Bernstein also questions the streetcar project.
  • Lester Jones of Corona wrote back to the newspaper, arguing that the streetcar would spark private investments with transit oriented development. If you've been through Riverside, you will find that residents and business owners certainly could use the opportunity to revitalize their neighborhoods.
  • Justin Nelson of the Riding in Riverside transit blog illustrates some very valid points: Streetcars operating in mixed traffic could worsen mobility and that public transit resources would be better spent toward expanding RTA's transit service span later in the night. We also believe late night bus service in Riverside and other portions of RTA's service area is long overdue.
With the state now getting involved, Bailey's idea has now become a real proposal. The Magnolia and University Avenue corridors in Riverside could very well benefit with a mass transit rail system operating in a dedicated set of lanes or right-of-way combined with area revitalization. However the truth is that under the current economic climate, lack of a robust business marketplace, and substandard transit infrastructure and operations, we simply cannot afford the streetcar just yet. 

On top of the grade-separation projects and implementing late night RTA bus service, the city has other infrastructure projects that deserve priority before getting into the streetcar business. Getting a robust RTA transit center to the Riverside Downtown train station and linking the hub to the downtown core with a pedestrian/bicycle bridge over the 91 Freeway has long been mired in fiscal madness. Let's not even talk about linking the downtown transit center to the SR-91 and SR-60 carpool lanes with direct access ramps. These issues must be addressed and we didn't need to ask for $237,500 in taxpayer money to draw up these fact-based conclusions.

However if Riverside manages to attract private capital and investment to the city by improving its business climate and the State of California stops displacing our transportation money to special interests, we might be able to afford paying for these infrastructure proposals without going into massive debt or worsening existing mobility. We've already pointed out that developers could invest money into a marketplace employment hub at the Riverside Downtown station which would pay for the transit center, pedestrian bridge, and HOV lane direct access ramps. The fact is that Riverside is starved for an improved business climate, the revitalization of troubled neighborhoods, and upgrades to other transportation infrastructure. Riverside Reconnects needs to be done right, even if "reconnect" means a more practicable transportation alternative to the streetcar.