Photo Courtesy the Portland Development Commission
A streetcar travels through the Pearl District in Portland, Ore., which Salt Lake leaders visited to study the transit option.

Streetcars may be returning to downtown Salt Lake City — minus the mules.

Mayor Ralph Becker, members of the City Council and other city leaders want to see a network of streetcars added as a downtown transit option to complement the Utah Transit Authority's light- and commuter-rail system.

Becker and other city leaders have climbed aboard the streetcar bandwagon after seeing how it has spurred economic development in Portland, Ore. Portland's initial $55 million investment to build 2.5 miles of streetcar track in 2001 has led to about $3 billion in private investments, said DJ Baxter, executive director of Salt Lake City's Redevelopment Agency.

City government and business leaders visited Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia, last week as a part of a redevelopment and transit tour. The purpose, Baxter said, was to see firsthand how the cities' transit systems have strengthened economic development — and vice versa.

A handful of those who took the trip met with members of the media Thursday, and all of them raved about the streetcar.

"They're an incredible inducement for development," Becker said. "Lay the tracks and development follows almost immediately. That's what we saw place after place."

An example of that is Portland's Pearl District, a once-rundown section of the city. Before, during and after photographs of the area show its rapid turnaround after tracks for a streetcar were put in place.

"Laying tracks in the road provides an assurance for developers ... as they look at where they're going to invest for the future," Becker said. "It changes the dynamic (of an area), and it changes the development opportunities for the developer."

Much more study is needed to determine how and where a system would work downtown, but city leaders are committed to making it happen.

"After this experience, I can tell you I am sold on the concept and the benefit of streetcars," said JT Martin, city councilman and vice chairman of the city's RDA board.

The idea hearkens back to 1872, when a mule pulled the first streetcar along tracks on Main Street. That first streetcar turned into a 41-car system covering nine miles of track, according to city officials.

In 1889, Salt Lake City became the second city in the country to replace donkeys with electric streetcars. By 1900, the Salt Lake Valley had more than 145 miles of track that connected neighborhoods to downtown.

"We had a very comprehensive system," Martin said, "and I hope we're able to replace that. That is the future."

Salt Lake City already has partnered with South Salt Lake and UTA on an environmental study for a streetcar line along 2300 South, between 200 West and Highland Drive, in Sugar House.

That project, estimated at $37 million, could begin construction in as soon as five years, Becker said.

Funding options for a downtown streetcar network still need to be explored, the mayor said. The cost to construct one mile of streetcar line is estimated at $20 million — about one-third the cost of light rail.

The city is expected to seek federal funding, and possibly state money, for the project. A citywide tax increase likely would not be needed, Becker said, but special assessments on property owners who would stand to benefit from the streetcar are a strong possibility.

"That's a very localized type of investment from the community, but not a general tax increase," he said.

Partnerships with the business community also would need to play a role in the financing.

City leaders envision the streetcar system working with existing TRAX lines to make it easier for people to get around downtown. Lines are built into the street and single streetcars share lanes of traffic with other vehicles. Like light-rail, streetcars are powered by overhead electrical lines.

"It's designed to mix with traffic," Baxter said. "Cars can drive right on the track."

The streetcars would stop more often than TRAX, likely at every block, he said.

"It's not a high-speed mode of transit," Baxter said. "It's designed to help extend the length of your pedestrian trips in a walking environment."

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