Electric streetcars, like the one pictured here in Portland, Oregon, are the model and inspiration for the proposal of a new streamlined Gainesville public transit.

Gainesville already has enough quirky people and places to be a twin city to Eugene, Oregon. Home to the University of Oregon, this quintessential college town is very similar to Gainesville in terms of population dynamics and urban structure. So, what’s missing from Gainesville (aside from an awesome McMenamin’s)? A solid and effective transit system.

Former mayor of Gainesville, David Coffey, along with City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins, chair of the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO), visited Oregon, mainly Eugene and Portland, in late September to further develop Gainesville’s Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and streetcar plan. So far, Eugene and Portland’s transit systems are proving to be viable models for Gainesville.

Eugene had its highly effective BRT network ready and running in 2007 with ridership in its first year exceeding the 20-year projection. And just two hours north, the widely recognized, urban-planning ideal, Portland, began operating its successful streetcar network in 2001.

Members of Gainesville’s MTPO are hopeful that the implementation of a system similar to Eugene’s BRT and Portland’s streetcar will be just as successful in Gainesville. MTPO is a committee dedicated to facilitating and furthering development of alternative transportation in the Gainesville metropolitan area.

Traditionally, city planners have expanded roads to fix traffic problems. However, this solution is not permanent. With time, roads get re-clogged with the vehicles of a city’s growing population. To permanently improve and decongest streets, the local transit system needs a complete transformation. Instead of adding new lanes, the new plan designates lanes specifically for BRT buses – made possible by shifting medians and traffic lines. In some cases, along more crowded roads like Archer, BRT buses may share a lane with High Occupancy Vehicles. Via Archer Road, BRT routes have been mapped out to span from the airport to the interstate, connecting most of Gainesville.

The airport and interstate are buzzing commuter hubs, connecting Gainesville with neighboring counties, the rest of the state and the country. These areas will harbor Transit-Oriented Developments (TODs), essentially glamorized park-and-rides, and will be key in decreasing traffic in town. In addition to a park-and-ride, a TOD is a compact community that includes shopping and dining, catering specifically to the commuter.

There are four such centers planned for Gainesville’s transportation transformation. Coffey is now a land-use attorney representing the developers of three of the these TODs.

Currently, more than 110,000 commuters per day travel the roughly 17-mile route representative of the planned BRT corridor. Surely, every car owner in Gainesville is familiar with Archer Road traffic. Integration of TODs would break down the city traffic congestion by granting commuters easy access to the BRT network.

This envisioned system would transform Gainesville’s public transit into a fluid, bus network that is quick, convenient and reliable, facilitating a seamless commute to and from all centers of activity in Gainesville. With all of Gainesville’s future urban transit plans centered around BRT and a supplemental streetcar extension, our city could be looking more like Eugene or a miniature Portland by 2035, as conservatively projected by the city’s Long Range Transportation plan.

Of course, University of Florida and Santa Fe Community College are two major hubs along the route.

“Santa Fe and UF are two nodes that need to be connected. Cross-pollination between the two is already happening, so let’s facilitate it,” Coffey said, who also has served as chair of MTPO.

BRT routes will run from the Gainesville Regional Airport along Archer Road to Interstate-75, and then swing straight north to Santa Fe. So, where does the UF come into play?

Enter streetcar. Our humble city’s modern streetcar would run along SW Second Ave. and SW Fourth Ave., wrapping around downtown, and continue onward through UF’s campus, passing by Shand’s.

Like the BRT buses, this downtown-to-campus “urban circulator” will maintain a 10-minute headway, making public transportation less tedious and more convenient.

BRT may be up and running as soon as 2020, on the optimistic side of the 2035 estimation. But, the streetcar won’t be in the picture until much later – an estimated additional five years. The streetcar augmentation is currently in an embryonic stage with the federally required feasibility study funded, but not yet started.

A handful of other cities have streetcar and heritage trolley systems, but the type of modern streetcar deemed fit for Gainesville has only been seen three times before in the country; Seattle, Wash.,Tacoma, Wash., and Portland, Oregon.

A trolley, cable car, light rail and streetcar may all seem synonymous, but each has its own distinction from the rest.

Usually vintage, trolleys are open-aired and typically not as energy efficient as their cousins – think New Orleans. A cable car is powered by electricity fed up from underground, through the rails on which the car runs – think San Francisco. Light Rails, to be contrasted with “Heavy Rails,” as in actual railways, are intended to travel at fast speeds with less stops – think outside of Portland, in commute to downtown wherein the light rail changes to function as a streetcar.

Gainesville’s modern streetcar, as with other cities’, will be purely electric, so there won’t be diesel spewing out along its neighborhood-winding journey between downtown and campus. MTPO is looking into technology developed in Spain and Japan that enables streetcars to recharge their ultra capacitors in 20 seconds when stopping at stations and briefly at the end of the line before looping back around.

In addition to being a more aesthetically pleasing and quieter alternative to a bus, an electric streetcar is attractive because of its reliability and permanence. The streetcar gives assurance to nearby residents and business owners that there will always be public transportation near their living and working spaces. On the other hand, buses do not maintain such permanence – routes could easily change or be eliminated. This assurance provided by the streetcar does come with a price, though.

There is, as Coffey explains, a potential for elevated rent in the areas surrounding the streetcar. The increase rent may drive students away from the current student neighborhood just east of campus.

Hawkins said this elevation in property value would apply to the the actual land value, not necessarily the units on it – depending on how many units. A denser arrangement of units on the newly higher-valued property will diffuse the extra costs among more units. Hawkins is confident that if downtown proceeds with this high density development, Gainesville will maintain its ability to provide affordable housing.

Again turning to Oregon for inspiration, Hawkins learned that land values in Portland’s Pearl District, home to the city’s streetcar system, are 15 times greater today than they were prior to the streetcar’s existence.

Portland’s streetcar also stimulated the local economy by generating $3.5 billion of private investment within a three block radius from the streetcar line.

The City of Gainesville has been progressing towards the comprehensive BRT network since the early 2000s, with talk of the streetcar surfacing just two or three years ago.

Hawkins sees investment in alternative transit as a vital component of Gainesville’s success as a maturing city in the modern world and advocates for an increase in funding in the city’s transportation.

Maybe one day in the moderately distant future Gainesville will become the Portland of the south. For now, we can only dream (…and invest in alternative transportation).