SOUTH BEND — Potential new pots of state and federal money for infrastructure projects has prompted a local group to make an attempt to bring back a storied South Bend tradition: electric streetcars.
Streetcars first appeared in South Bend in the 1880s, and reviving that fixture will grow the region’s population and economic development, while decreasing its carbon footprint, members of the RiverRail task force say.
“If we really want to rebuild our city, we need to go back in and look at that model and how we can drive that again,” said Jan Cervelli, a founding principal at urban design firm Serra Terra LLC and a professor at Saint Mary’s College.
The proposed RiverRail system, still in its conceptual stage, would include approximately six miles of track running from Notre Dame into downtown South Bend and then along Mishawaka Avenue into downtown Mishawaka. The tracks would be built on the street to run alongside regular traffic and the cars would be electric.
Cervelli said she got the idea for a modern streetcar system during her time in Tucson, Ariz., as a dean of landscape architecture at the University of Arizona. Tucson launched its streetcars, Sun Link, in 2014 and has seen a spike in economic development in the areas surrounding the route, she said.
“I become directly aware of how powerful a tool the modern streetcar can be, not only to bring a good form of alternative transportation, but I began to see what a powerful economic development engine it can be,” said Cervelli, who is also the former president of Saint Mary’s College. “It’s really a city-building tool.”
And so Cervelli, along with Doug Hunt, a former state senator and senior partner at Holladay Properties, Chuck Lehman, president of design firm Lehman & Lehman Inc., and Lou Pierce, founder of Mishawaka-based marketing firm Big Idea Company, are taking their plan to local officials and the community in the hopes of making RiverRail a reality.
“This is, in a nutshell, the opportunity for South Bend and Mishawaka to bring people back to the city,” Hunt said.
Getting on track
The proposal is still in its infancy and could face many questions, especially surrounding the cost.
The group has yet to perform a detailed feasibility study, which would include a more accurate price tag, but Cervelli said the streetcar system would likely cost more than $200 million, the majority of which would need to come from state and federal funding.
Hunt said the primary reason the group is going public with its plans now is to coincide with President Joe Biden’s attempt to get a massive national infrastructure spending bill through Congress. The task force said the RiverRail project is not contingent on the Biden Administration’s legislation passing, but that item, combined with Gov. Eric Holcomb’s recently announced Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI), signals the time is ripe for infrastructure projects.
“I think the bigger the pool of money, the better your chances are,” Hunt said.
Task force members also feel general economic trends make a streetcar line viable in a way it wasn’t in the middle of the 20th century, when the service fell by the wayside in South Bend. Cervelli said booming automobile ownership during that period drove streetcars out of business, but noted that fewer people moving into urban areas today own cars.
“If you look at cities today and traffic congestion, a lot of people, millennials and baby boomers, want to move back into urban environments,” she said. “They don’t necessarily need a car or want a car. They want to get on modern, safe, convenient transit to get from one place to another.”
It is also difficult to determine how much economic development a streetcar route would drive. Cervelli and Hunt said the line in Tucson has produced $2 billion to $3 billion in investments, an amount well above the cost of the project.
Michael Guyman, vice president of the Tucson Chamber of Commerce, said that number is real, though not all can be attributed to the streetcars.
Guyman noted that numerous residential or mixed-use projects quickly sprang up around Tucson’s streetcar route, which linked the University of Arizona to the city’s downtown district. Property prices in the immediate area also rose sharply.
“A lot of those developers talked about how the streetcar was the primary reason they did it,” Guyman said.
Guyman also noted that investors like infrastructure projects, such as streetcar lines, that physically show where a community’s dollars are being spent.
“There’s a sexiness to a streetcar because you can see the tracks and hear the bell,” he said.
The next task for the group is to commission a formal feasibility study that will determine the location of the route and stations and set a strategy for paying for the project. Hunt said the task force plans to ask local governments for $250,000 to hire HDR Consulting to do the study.
South Bend Mayor James Mueller said he would have to see the group’s formal request before saying whether he would consider giving city money to the study. However, he noted that many of the areas slated as stops on the streetcar track are places the city has had its eye on to improve.
“The level of ambition in our community continues to go higher and higher, which is a good thing,” Mueller said.