Downtown streetcar plan inches ahead — without funding plan

Image depicting a proposed streetcar to run in downtown L.A.
Image depicting a proposed streetcar to run in downtown L.A.

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A plan to bring streetcars back to downtown Los Angeles is moving ahead with a $281 million price tag, despite remaining questions about how it will be funded.

The Los Angeles City Council voted Friday to begin preliminary engineering on the streetcar, which would connect Bunker Hill, Civic Center, the historic core and L.A. Live with a 4-mile one-way loop. It'll ramble by at about 4 miles per hour.

Councilman Jose Huizar has been a champion of the streetcar as part of his Bringing Back Broadway campaign to revitalize the historic Broadway corridor.

"What was old is now new again, but in a better way," he said, referring to the historic streetcars that were common in pre-war Los Angeles, as seen in old silent movies like Keystone Kops and Buster Keaton.

Modern incarnations can be found in the downtowns of Portland, Seattle and Atlanta. They run in the same lanes as cars and buses so they travel at the same speed as traffic.

Huizar said a streetcar here would integrate all of the entertainment, dining and tourism attractions in downtown, so visitors can easily navigate the various areas.

The idea for the streetcar, which originated with the now-defunct Community Redevelopment Agency, was initially sold as a $125 million project. Downtown voters approved a tax on property owners in the area to raise $62.5 million to fund half of it in 2012.

Since then, the budget has ballooned - at one point to more than $300 million - due to unaccounted for costs of relocating utilities like power and water lines along the proposed route.

The most recent report put the budget at $281 million, too large to qualify for a federal grant for small projects less than $250 million that is considered an essential piece of the funding.

Huizar said that as more concrete blueprints are drawn up, cost estimates can be refined and lowered, hopefully to meet the federal threshold.

The current $281 million estimate includes a required 30 percent contingency for cost overruns since it's so early in the planning process.

Even if the federal grant comes through, the project still faces a $140 million funding gap. Huizar said he is pursuing public-private partnerships and has had interest from more than a dozen firms.

Many downtown businesses have supported the plan. A study commissioned by the nonprofit Los Angeles Streetcar, Inc estimated it would spur more than $1 billion in development over 30 years.

But critics say the project is unnecessary in an area already well-served by public transit. Downtown has multiple existing buses, light rail lines and a subway under construction. The L.A. Times editorial board cautioned if the budget can't be controlled, it could turn into "A Streetcar Named Disaster."

But Huizar insists a streetcar will make a difference in his district.

"It's easy, it's convenient and it's environmentally sound," he said.

He pointed to cities like Portland, saying neighborhoods where the streetcar runs have seen significant gains in economic development because the fixed nature of a track guarantees to investors that visitors will keep coming.

 A streetcar at the corner of Broadway and 7th Street in downtown L.A., 1957.

See more photos of historic L.A. streetcars at the Metro Library and Archive.