On wave of City Hall momentum, streetcar organizer regroups

Since early-2005, Tacoma resident Morgan Alexander has been the face of a grassroots movement to restore a historic streetcar system in Tacoma.

After a brief hiatus — he helped form the historic preservation advocacy group Historic Tacoma, and now serves on its board; helped organize this year’s Music and Murals; and he and his wife have a new child in their family — Alexander, 39, is back, and bolstered by recent signals from City Hall that building a streetcar is a good idea.

On May 23, City Council’s environment and public works committee formally accepted the findings of a feasibility study largely supportive of the idea.

And City Manager Eric Anderson has included building a streetcar system that connects downtown, neighborhoods, and business districts as part of his comprehensive long-term parking and transportation plan.

“I started out just kind of bouncing the idea around with local politicians, and it just kept growing,” says Alexander, a commercial real estate broker, of his streetcar efforts over the past couple years.

On Sept. 26, at 6 p.m., Alexander will host a community meeting at Tacoma Public Library’s downtown branch, located at 1102 Tacoma Ave. So. The meeting will update attendees on the streetcar project, discuss ways to collaborate with ongoing efforts at City Hall, brainstorm projects and advocacy campaigns to raise excitement and awareness for the streetcar, and form workgroup committees for future specific actions.

The Index caught up with Alexander last week to discuss the streetcar idea.

TACOMA DAILY INDEX: You announced recently that Tacoma Streetcar will host a meeting this week to discuss the streetcar plan. Why regroup now?

MORGAN ALEXANDER: It kind of seemed like the time was right. The past year or so was spent on the city’s feasibility study. Now that’s wrapped up, and it seems like a new chapter is starting. The idea is to regroup, shift focus a little bit from being a lobbying group to being more of a supportive organization — friends of the streetcar — and help out with marketing, raising support, and just kind of keeping the idea moving forward. Personally, I have been involved in [a number of things]: Music and Murals, Historic Tacoma, and, of course, a new baby in the family. A combination of all of those absorbed my time over the past year. But Historic Tacoma is doing really well. Music and Murals is over. Now I’m shifting my focus back on the streetcar to get that going again.

INDEX: There appears to be some momentum right now from city officials for building a streetcar in Tacoma. What are some of the positive things you see coming out of City Hall?

ALEXANDER: Definitely, there’s support for it. I guess it’s just one of those ideas you either get right away, or you don’t get at all. Or you just need time for it to sink in. I think it just needs time to simmer a little bit. As you are out and about envisioning it, you kind of realize, ‘Yeah, the city would actually be much better with [a streetcar]. It is do-able.’ Spending a little time talking with people in Portland and Seattle, and hearing about their experiences with the streetcar, it makes it a little bit easier to consider doing because it’s not like we would be re-inventing the wheel.

INDEX: Two big questions related to this project exist: ‘How will a streetcar be funded?’ and ‘Where will the line operate?’ At this point, are there any answers? And what other challenges or questions are out there?

ALEXANDER: There are still some unanswered questions. The funding question has two parts. The capital project of just building the thing. For that, just like Seattle and Portland, it’s kind of a whole briefcase full of different funding sources — everything from — at a local level — Local Improvement Districts, gas taxes, property taxes, on up to county and state level with transportation funding, and neighborhood improvement funding. Then, at the federal level, there’s transportation funding. Portland’s streetcar, for example, was started as a private venture. Private funding has to be part of it. It has to be a community project. The more it’s owned by the community, the better it will be. Then it also fades into operational — once it’s going, keeping it going. That, too, is still a little bit up in the air. There’s nothing to preclude that it couldn’t be run by the City, or a new streetcar entity. As far as routes, one approach — and this is what makes sense — is to build on what’s already there with the downtown link, and just start expanding it. Take an existing line and just incrementally grow it. There is this big picture, in the end, that we want it to go everywhere. But we grow it one mile at a time. For me, it makes sense on the north end of downtown, extend the link to Stadium District. From there, it gets you to Sixth Avenue and Proctor. On the other end of downtown, you could go up Pacific. You could even go up Yakima to get up to the Lincoln District. But then you can also build on some interest already shown by the Puyallup Tribe, which is a line out to Portland Avenue.

INDEX: One item on the agenda at this week’s meeting is to discuss projects and advocacy campaigns to raise excitement and awareness of the streetcar. What ideas do you have in mind?

ALEXANDER: We have been bouncing around a few ideas. One is to just raise awareness of the project, collect information about the historic streetcar system, and produce a book on Tacoma streetcars. That’s one idea. But it really depends on what comes out of the meeting. And then, of course, there is the original Tacoma streetcar up [in Rockport, Wash.] that needs to be restored. To get that running on weekends on the downtown Link rail — I think that would really get people excited.

INDEX: Why should streetcars be a priority for the city?

ALEXANDER: It’s a good question. It really kind of ties into all of the effort that the City is doing to revive downtown, promote economic development, and create more livable and walkable neighborhoods. It ties into all of that. Living in the city is more affordable with a transportation system like streetcars. The advantage of a streetcar over a bus is that it’s a real visible, physical improvement and investment in the city that developers will build around. Plus, they are just fun. I think it’s key for the City of Tacoma because there’s really not a lot the city can do to really impact economic development itself. The current model is to have developers and business owners do it. I think it’s a great way for the City itself to build a community, and the system be a visible outgrowth of the city’s spirit. I think we just have to do it.

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For more information, visit http://www.tacomastreetcar.org .

For earlier streetcar coverage, visit the Index’s archives for the following articles:

— Building History: A father-and-son team puts heritage trolleys back on city streets (June 1, 2007)

— End of the line, 130 miles north (May 31, 2007)

— City Council committee onboard with streetcar feasibility results (May 24, 2007)

— Streetcar Desires: Tacoma isn’t the only city giving heritage transportation a new look (Jan. 17, 2007)

— Group kicks off feasibility study for Tacoma streetcar (Dec. 19, 2006)

— Home Town Spirit: An interview with Tacoma Streetcar’s Morgan Alexander (Sept. 19, 2006)

— City moves forward on streetcar feasibility study (June 28, 2006)

— Council committee supports streetcar resolution (April 13, 2006)