Grand Rapids, MI Inches Towards $69 M Streetcar

The City of Grand Rapids, MI has invested billions in new condos, restaurants, and futuristic medical research labs and hospitals in the central city. Now civic leaders are realizing the city's renaissance is missing one important piece: modern mass transit.

So they are accelerating the study of a street car system designed to circulate residents and visitors around downtown, according to a report in yesterday's Grand Rapids Press. The move is part of a broader strategy to speed urban revitalization, attract talented workers and companies, and position the city to prosper in the global economy.

The proposed project, estimated to cost approximately $69 million, is strikingly similar in terms of scale and cost to a number of streetcar systems already built or underway in cities across the United States. Portland’s, for example, cost $54 million, is 4.8 miles long, and in 10 years stimulated nearly $3 billion in new downtown investment, including the largest economic development project in that city’s history.

"Wherever the track goes down becomes ground zero for massive development," former Grand Rapids Mayor John Logie recently told a local transit task force. "But private investment ripples about four blocks away on either side of the streetcar line. So you want to go where development has yet to occur."

The streetcar project is moving forward slowly. But a number of the region's decision makers still view mass transit as a big government expense, rather than a critical investment in the region's modern economic development strategy. Even more poisonous is the idea that a streetcar system is a pie-in-the-sky big city dream that will never happen in little ole Grand Rapids.

Plenty of demons stand in the way of this important effort to evolve Michigan's second largest city for the 21st century.