By LWVMPC Transit Study Streetcar Sub-Committee

Streetcars (1) on tracks are part of Salem’s heritage. The Capitol City Railway Company installed the first electric-powered streetcar lines in 1890. By the early 20th century, an extensive network of popular and profitable streetcars stretched to the four corners of Salem.

Many of the same community principles that fueled the development of early streetcar lines are applicable today. Salem residents need efficient and affordable public transportation options to safely and conveniently access their workplaces, shopping, medical, educational and leisure facilities.

The Cherriots and City of Salem commissioned a feasibility study of streetcars in downtown Salem in 2004. The consultant issued a final report entitled “Central Salem Streetcar Feasibility Study” in 2005. (2)The study summarized the attributes of streetcar systems, looked at streetcars that have been implemented in similar-sized cities, analyzed potential routes in downtown Salem, and estimated costs. Those findings are included in this article along with an update of economic and social changes that have occurred in the past decade and that directly affect transportation problems and the streetcar option. Also included are potential routes that could serve current and future community needs at less cost than previously estimated.

STREETCAR FINDINGS: The consultant’s report was premised on Salem-Keizer’s socio-economic condition in 2005 and the growth that was anticipated at that time. The consultant determined that a streetcar system could enhance the Cherriots system in the downtown area in providing effective and efficient transit, because of the following attributes:

● Streetcars are proven to attract 15-50 percent more riders than buses.

● Streetcars are trusted because passengers can see where the tracks lead on any route.

● Streetcars are an effective means of connecting with other high-capacity transit systems, such as inter-city buses and trains, allowing seamless regional transportation, reducing reliance on automobiles and reducing traffic congestion.

● Streetcars are most effective in densely-populated, pedestrian-oriented urban neighborhoods with mixed uses. They interface effectively with neighborhood feeder buses to provide a smooth connected way to move people from one area to another.

● Streetcars attract private funding and urban renewal funding. They have the potential to promote infill and high-density residential development. (3) Streetcar track adds value to business and residential properties along the route.

● Streetcars are electric, non-polluting and safe.

● Streetcars are popular with tourists, visitors and convention participants.

RIDERSHIP FINDINGS: The consultant’s report found that streetcars usually enhance the ridership totals of a transit system, for the following reasons:

● Streetcars help build all-day usage, rather than rush-hour worker usage only, as long as the intensity and mix of land uses in an area served by mass transit is great.

● Streetcar service can be more frequent than buses, so regular commuter use tends to grow. Streetcars traveling at 10-15 minute intervals over a one- to two-mile route have shown the greatest success in attracting riders.

● Effective connectivity with a broad network of buses and trains makes streetcar use a dependable alternative to automobile use, reducing traffic congestion and amount of parking space required.

● Clear, accurate signage, maps, and time schedules make a streetcar system user-friendly.

● A starter line can be installed initially with incremental sections added based on need and availability of funding. Rubber-tired trolleys could provide a temporary transition.(4)

ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL CHANGES: A number of important changes have occurred over the past decade, many of which intensify the need for transit solutions:

Population Growth: The 2010 Census shows that Marion County’s population grew by 10.7 percent and Polk County’s by 20.9 percent since 2000. West Salem, in Polk County, is the most rapidly-growing residential area of Salem. Traffic, especially from West Salem and on Lancaster Drive during morning, noon and evening rush hours, approaches gridlock. Twelve thousand people per day drive into Salem from outside the city in order to work. (5) Daily attendance at Chemeketa Community College as of December 2011 is 18,394. (6)

Economic Changes: A dramatic change in the world’s economy, beginning in 2007, has impacted the Salem economy. Salem’s average income decreased, the result of layoffs in business and government agencies and plant closures. Real estate values and financial investments have plummeted. Gasoline has nearly doubled in price. Insurance costs have risen. Many two-car families can no longer afford their second car. Some families cannot afford any car.

Baby-Boomers, An Aging Population: Persons born between 1946 and 1964 are a huge demographic group approaching retirement age. Many in the Boomer generation drive less now than in the past for environmental, health and economic reasons. They would use an attractive alternative choice to conduct their daily travel.

Housing: Development of city-center housing and condominiums, projected to flourish before the real estate market tumbled in 2008, have not achieved the anticipated build-out. Residential housing areas remain outside the central core area. Business and residential development (YWCA, Salem Cinema, Broadway Commons) has been active on North Broadway.

Rail Bridge Refurbishment: The rail bridge across the Willamette River has been successfully converted to use as a pedestrian bridge leading from West Salem to downtown Salem. The steel bridge is of heavy-duty construction that could support an upper level for tracks and streetcars that could transport passengers over the river. Alternatively, it could be possible to put tracks on the Marion Street Bridge to align with Edgewater Street, but State ownership of the bridge and rules would likely make this plan cost prohibitive and complicated.

Convention Center: Salem’s Convention Center opened downtown in 2005. The facility accommodates large groups of people for conferences and other events. Nearby parking is limited.

Annual Legislative Sessions: Beginning in 2011 the Oregon Legislature conducts annual, instead of biennial, sessions. Parking for the vehicles of workers + legislative staff, lobbyists, media representatives and visitors + is very limited on Capitol Mall.

Bus Ridership Shows Current Needs: Transit riders now seek to move from place to place for shopping, work, health care and education purposes. Connectivity between neighborhood routes and arterials, as well as frequency of service, are critical for maximum benefit. Service is needed seven days a week during hours that serve the needs of workers, employers and consumers.

Busiest Routes Illustrate Growing Need: Cherriots records for 2010 show that bus ridership was highest on routes leading to/from Chemeketa Community College on Lancaster Drive, on Center and Market Streets, on River Road to/from Keizer, and on Commercial Street to/from South Salem. The combined ridership on those routes was more than two million rides, one-half the total ridership for all 25 Cherriots routes within the Salem Urban Growth Boundary.

Connectivity to Other Cities Has been Enhanced by CARTS: CARTS buses now travel to locations outside Salem, including Silverton, Stayton and Dallas. Ridership on those routes in fiscal 2010-11 exceeded 62,000. A commuter line to/from Wilsonville is popular with those who live and/or work north of Salem. Riders are able to access further means of travel to Portland, if needed.

Intermodality Study: A 2010 study commissioned by City of Salem and Transit District stressed need for creative solutions to the congestion problem on Marion and Center St. bridges, largely from single-passenger vehicles with local destinations. (7)

Streetcar Manufacturer in Oregon: United Streetcar, located in Clackamas, Oregon, has been building streetcars for the Portland streetcar system.

Low-Cost Energy Source: Salem Electric in West Salem provides electricity at low cost.


● The City of Portland streetcar system has been extended and ridership steadily increases.

● The 1.7-mile streetcar-loop in Kenosha, Wisconsin, was built at lowest cost – $5 million. In its first year of operation, it carried 67,600 passengers.

● Little Rock, AR, constructed its 2.5 mile streetcar route across the Arkansas River Bridge at a $20 million cost and serves two cities that border the river.

● Tampa, FL, constructed a 2.4-mile streetcar line at a cost of $32 million. Additional high-tech maintenance facility and property purchase raised the total cost to $56 million. Its ridership is 950-1,250 per day.

● Tacoma, WA, constructed a successful streetcar line as a link with the Sounder Commuter Rail, which connects Tacoma with downtown Seattle.

● Other cities, including Tucson, AZ, Charlotte, NC, Cincinnati, OH, and Salt Lake City, UT, announced in 2010 that they had received sufficient funding, including federal TIGER grant moneys, to begin implementing streetcar systems.


● Lancaster Drive and Chemeketa Community College: There are several centers of high passenger use (shopping malls, Chemeketa Community College, Kaiser Permanente medical clinic, McKay High School, Salem-Keizer School District offices) along this wide, straight route.

● Keizer: Broadway and River Road North pass many businesses, apartment/condominium complexes and professional offices. This route would reduce traffic congestion on the main northernmost thoroughfare of the city.

● South Salem: The Commercial and Liberty couplet between South Salem and downtown passes many apartments, businesses and professional offices, the Civic Center and Salem Library.

● West Salem Connector Utilizing the Railroad Bridge: An alignment from West Salem over one of the existing highway bridges or the pedestrian rail bridge would provide a means of reaching downtown, the Capitol Mall and the bus transit center. One concept is to place track on top of the steel trusses and construct a “fly-over” bridge above the railroad track and Front Street onto Union Street. A West Salem connector could reduce automobile traffic on the Marion and Center Street bridges and reduce the urgency for construction of a third bridge.

● Downtown: A downtown alignment would provide efficient service to the Capitol Mall and downtown core; however, construction costs would tend to be higher than other routes.

● Incremental Implementation: Wherever the community chooses to implement a streetcar system, a one- to two-mile single-track route could be appropriate as an initial segment. Growth could occur on an as-needed basis and as funding became available.


Streetcars are fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Floor level boarding platforms make access/ egress easy for wheelchair users. Mobility devices are not required inside the vehicle. Bikes ride inside the streetcar, secured in racks.


Construction costs vary considerably, depending on right-of-way issues, underground utilities, complicated street surface, and cost of the equipment chosen.  Salem’s Feasibility Study of 2005 used construction cost estimates ranging from $55 to $61 million (roughly $15 million per mile of track).  Those figures are no longer relevant as they reflected difficulties in laying track in downtown Salem.  In the past few years construction costs ranged widely, from $5 million per mile (Kenosha, WI) to over $20 million per mile (Portland, OR).  Salem should be in the range of Little Rock at $8 million per mile because of minimal below-street infrastructure on Lancaster, Commercial, Market and Center Streets (Salem’s most heavily travelled corridors). A new feasibility study would, of course, be required to determine the actual cost to lay tracks on those or other streets.


The issue of implementing a streetcar system in Salem is controversial. Some of the arguments supporting and opposing such a plan are as follows:


● Streetcar routes linking residential areas with workplaces, colleges and other high-traffic destinations are popular with riders and will attract commuters and other regular users.

● Streetcars can reduce automobile congestion.

● Streetcars would improve the public’s perception of, and support for, mass transit as an integrated system.

● Implementation can be delayed until adequate funding sources are identified and the Transit District’s current financial constraints are improved. New technologies may become available at less cost, especially regarding alternative power sources and engineering design.


● The cost of implementation requires grant assistance for initial construction and a community commitment to support the streetcar’s operation until the system achieves full potential.

● Salem’s ridership potential is not as high as that of the Portland Streetcar. Because streetcars run on tracks, their routes, once chosen, are less adjustable than bus routes.

This article was prepared by League members Robert Krebs, Britta Franz, Anna Penk and Sandra Gangle. It was edited by Janet Adkins and Sandra Gangle.


(1) Throughout this report, “streetcar” means an electric-powered transit vehicle operated on tracks, usually on major city streets and rights-of-way, and following a regular route schedule. Streetcars are distinguishable from light rail, which operates on rail tracks in a dedicated right-of-way and serves a large number of passengers, often commuters, at speeds up to 35 mph. Streetcars are also distinguishable from trolleys, which are rubber-tired heritage-styled buses, powered by gasoline, natural gas, or bio-diesel, and used for passenger service with frequent stops over short distances on traditional streets. Trolley routes are usually circular and located where they are likely to attract tourists. Often privately-owned, and rented for special events, they may not be ADA-compliant.

(2) See, Central Salem Streetcar Feasibility Study, Nelson/Nygaard Consulting Associates, 2005. See also, SKATS Transportation Improvement Program 2010-2015.

(3)The Portland Streetcar was a major contributor to the extraordinary residential and business development in Portland’s Pearl District.

(4) See, e.g., Opinion, Salem Statesman-Journal, September 15, 2003.

(5) Statistic provided by SEDCOR in November 2011 based on 2010 Census report.

(6) Headcount number provided by CCC President’s Office.


(8) These arguments come from the letter addressed to Salem City Council, April 25, 2005, signed by Troy John Bolduc, Chair, Salem Streetcar Committee, recommending that the City “continue to pursue the potential to realize [the] remarkable opportunity of implementing” streetcars, looking at alternative routes and lower-cost construction strategies that were recommended in the consultants’ study and from a similar letter to Mayor Janet Taylor signed by community leader Tony Nielsen.

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