Imagine hopping onto a streetcar downtown and being whisked in the direction of your home, whether that be on the East End or in an off-peninsula neighborhood. Imagine riding an electrified streetcar past old-school transit-oriented developments along Forest Avenue and thumbing your nose at idling cars and buses.
It could happen. City Councilor David Marshall, a Maine Green Independent Party candidate up for re-election in the West End this year, will give a presentation this Sunday at the Maine Irish Heritage Center on the history and possible future of streetcars in the Forest City, including potential funding sources and economic impacts.
Portland is no stranger to streetcars. From the 1860s through the 1920s, lines were built and ran along various routes, including:
• From India Street to Middle Street to Monument Square to the West End;
• Along Preble Street to Portland Street to Forest Avenue to Woodfords Corner;
• Down Congress Street, from Longfellow Square to Atlantic Street;
• From Woodfords Corner to East Deering;
• Along Commercial and Pearl streets to Congress; and
• Stretching into South Portland, Westbrook, and Cape Elizabeth. (You can, for a time, see some of these tracks in front of South Portland city hall right now, uncovered during road reconstruction.)
During the winter, horse-drawn sleighs filled in for rail cars; horse-drawn service lasted until the late 1800s, at which point overhead wires were installed and electrified streetcars became the norm.
But cars soon became the preferred mode of transport in Portland, streetcars were replaced by buses in the 1930s and '40s, and we've struggled to develop a robust public transportation system ever since.
Now, Marshall and others are considering the streetcar as a way to revitalize that system. The city's director of public services, Mike Bobinsky, addressed a memo in July to the council's Transportation, Sustainability, and Energy Committee, recommending the creation of a task force to discuss streetcar development. The committee opted not to act on the recommendation, at least not right away. According to a report in the Bangor Daily News, councilor and committee vice-chair Kevin Donoghue (also a Green Independent) suggested funding a feasibility study before establishing a task force. The committee will discuss applying for funding through the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System for transit planning projects at its next meeting.
And on his Rights of Way blog, writer Christian MilNeil offered a few reasons why refocusing on bus rapid transit (a kind of dressed-up service with dedicated streets or lanes for buses) might be a better solution — for now. It costs less, for one thing, and it's more flexible. But Marshall notes that buses don't have the kind of power to spur economic development that streetcars or commuter rail do.
"I'm open-minded to all modes of transit," Marshall said, pointing out that streetcar development was one suggestion put forth in the Portland Peninsula Transit Study of 2009. "But what I do see is that there are fewer people who can afford [car ownership] and people are more reliant on public transit as a result."
"Green Evolution: Streetcars and 21st Century Maine" | Sunday, September 16 from 5-8 pm | Maine Irish Heritage Center, 34 Gray St, Portland | $20 includes homemade Peruvian dinner | mainegreens.org