APTA Streetcar and
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Heritage Trolley Site
Hosted by the Seashore Trolley Museum
Memphis, TN


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Memphis. Tennessee

Photo: Van Wilkens

A Streetcar in Memphis, Tennessee.

In an effort to reverse urban decline, Memphis decided in the 1970s to create a downtown pedestrian mall, running about eight-tenths of a mile on Main Street, which parallels the Mississippi River. By the late 1980s, the mall was failing. Part of the reason was that it was too long for people to walk.21

When Memphis decided to redevelop the mall, it realized transit had to be part of the solution. Buses running down the mall were considered, but rejected as incompatible with pedestrians. In 1990, the city decided a streetcar line was the solution, using Vintage streetcars.

The initial line began service in 1993. It was 2.5 miles long, mostly double-tracked. The streetcars served the mall, but also ran beyond it on both ends to serve areas that needed economic development. Outside the mall, the streetcars ran on the street, sharing a lane with automobile traffic. In 1997, the initial line was converted into a loop by adding a parallel line which ran mostly on an old railroad track. The addition brought the total system up to a length of five miles.

All but one of the streetcars are antiques, of two basic designs. Seven cars are four-wheel Brill streetcars, two built in the U.S. in 1912, the rest built later in Portugal to the same Brill design. The Brill cars have wooden bodies and 19 seats. The other seven antique cars (more are being restored) are larger (52 seats), slightly newer, have metal bodies and came from Melbourne, Australia. As elsewhere, the antique cars in Memphis have proven reliable in regular service.

Service is provided seven days a week, and the fare is $.60 ($.30 around lunchtime). Service begins early on weekdays, at 6 AM, to accommodate people going to work. It runs late on weekends, to 1 AM and sometimes later, to serve people who have come downtown for entertainment. Eleven streetcars are operated in peak travel hours, with a car coming by about every five minutes.

In term of ridership, the streetcars of Memphis have been a big success. In the first full year of service, 1994, ridership was 468,115; in 1999, it was 922,475, and in the year 2000 it rose to 941,011. Estimated current daily ridership is 2774 on weekdays and 1704 on weekends. In 1999, the streetcars carried almost three times more passengers per revenue mile than Memphis's buses.22

It may be helpful to other cities and towns that are considering streetcars to look in more detail at streetcar riders in Memphis, because it shows what streetcars can do. A good study of the Memphis streetcar line by Mr. Thomas Fox, the system’s Director of Planning and Capital Projects, notes that:

Monday through Thursday ridership is comprised mainly of downtown workers and residents who use the system on a regular basis. Friday through Sunday ridership is more dependent on the activities that occur downtown. Saturday is the highest ridership day, with 3,887 riders in 1999…Monday through Thursday ridership is fairly stable but gradually increases as the week progresses, ranging between 2,030 and 2,456 daily patrons. Individual day ridership peaks generally coincide with major events in the downtown area. For example, during the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival on Friday, May 7, through Sunday, May 9, 1999, the (streetcars) carried 34,479 passengers, with 16,282 riders on Saturday. Other recurring events that are highly dependent on the trolley system for movement of large numbers of people are Memphis Redbirds (Triple A) baseball games at AutoZone Park, concerts and college basketball games at the Pyramid Arena, conventions, and cultural exhibits at the Cook Convention Center.23

An on-board survey of streetcar riders in Memphis taken in 1994 found that:

  • 51 percent were riding for transportation-related reasons and 49 percent for entertainment-related reasons;

  • 17 percent “normally get around Memphis” by public transit;

  • 61 percent had “eaten at restaurants along the trolley line,” and 34 percent had “shopped at stores along the trolley line;” and

  • 36% had incomes over $50,000; a total of 14 percent had incomes below $20,000.24

How has the streetcar line helped economic development? The south end of the line terminates at Central Station, Memphis’ historic main railroad station.  There, a redevelopment project includes a multi-modal transit center serving the streetcars, buses, Amtrak and automobile park-and-ride. The project also includes 12,000 square feet of commercial space, 63 apartments and a police station. At the north end, a similar multi-modal transit center also offers a day care center, a welfare-to-work career center and another police station.25 Mr. Fox notes:

Ridership (on the streetcars) has grown for a variety of reasons, the most important of which is the gradual growth and diversification of development in downtown Memphis. Since 1990, residential population has expanded from fewer than 1000 to more than 5000 people. Entertainment-type development -such as AutoZone Park, Peabody Place, Gibson Guitar Factory and Museum, and numerous restaurants, clubs, and hotels—has resulted in downtown becoming more of a destination for nonwork activities.26

What about costs? The original 2.5 mile line had a total cost, including the streetcars themselves, of $34,887,072, or a somewhat high $14 million per mile. However, almost half of this cost—$15,834,000—was for improvements to the pedestrian mall. The second 2.5 mile line, which completed the loop, cost just $9,428,860, or $3.8 million per mile. Why the big difference? As noted, the cost of the initial line included extensive repairs to the mall itself, plus construction of a new operations and maintenance facility and a great deal of utility relocation. In contrast, the second line used an existing rail line, including the existing track, for most of its length.27 Here as elsewhere, we see that construction costs vary greatly depending upon the specific characteristics of the streetcar line.

If we look at the sources of the construction funding, we see something else that may be useful to other towns and cities. 69% of the construction cost of the initial line and 44% of the cost of the second line came from money that was initially allocated by the Federal government for Interstate highway construction. When Memphis decided not to build the planned extension of Interstate 40, the FTA transferred the funds to the streetcar project. ISTEA and TEA 21 Federal legislation allow a great deal of flexibility in using highway funds for transit, so other cities may also be able to fund a streetcar line with money intended for unwanted highways.

Unlike Dallas, Memphis maintains and operates its streetcars with regular transit authority labor, not volunteers. Still, its operating costs are modest. In the APTA comparison of twenty Light Rail systems referenced earlier, Memphis’ streetcar operating costs ranked 15th per vehicle mile (20th is lowest), 19th per vehicle hour, and 11th per passenger trip. Operating cost per passenger mile was 2nd but that largely reflects the line’s comparatively short length (most Light Rail lines are much longer).28

As a streetcar system, Memphis has been quite successful in terms of costs, ridership and effects on downtown revival. But Memphis has another characteristic that is of interest: from the outset, the city saw bringing back the streetcars as a first step toward a modern Light Rail system.

Those plans are now moving toward fruition. Memphis is currently building a two-mile extension of the streetcar system, and the new line is being built to Light Rail standards, for eventual use by modern Light Rail vehicles. Running at right angles to the downtown loop along Madison Avenue, the new line will connect the downtown with the Medical Center district. Mr. Fox writes:

The project is the last segment of the downtown rail circulation system as well as the first segment of a regional light rail line... The extension is being designed to accommodate modern light rail vehicles, but vintage trolleys will be utilized until a proposed light rail line is implemented and a fleet of modern vehicles is acquired. The long-range Regional Transit Plan includes light rail in three corridors by the year 2020…Each recommended corridor connects to the (streetcar line) and downtown transportation terminals with the purpose of eventually mixing heritage and modern rail vehicles on Main Street, the riverfront, and Madison Avenue, and providing intermodal connections at the terminals.29

The cost per mile is about $24 million (plus two bridges for $8 million), but again, this line is built to Light Rail Standards.30

By starting with streetcars, then moving to Light Rail, Memphis has found a way around a major obstacle facing cities that want to initiate Light Rail: nobody locally understands what Light Rail is. Once streetcars are running and people have experienced them, Light Rail is much easier to explain. The mystery—and the fears—go away. And when Light Rail is built, it has a downtown circulator already operating with which it can connect.

Compared to Dallas’ McKinney Avenue streetcar, the streetcar system in Memphis offers a somewhat “upscale”" alternative, slightly more expensive, but highly suitable as a precursor to Light Rail. It, too, is a model other cities and perhaps some towns could do well to emulate—especially if they have funds for a highway they no longer want to build.



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