Downtown Oakland needs its rail back

I am posting this today to coincide with V Smoothe’s post at ABO about Streetcars on Broadway.  Was going to add more detail before posting in the future at some unknown date.  On the other hand, I feel very discouraged that this will probably never happen which is why I didn’t post it sooner.  The idea of putting railcars back onto Oaktown streets is not original to me, although I didn’t know of other people’s opinions on this until today.  (Other than say people like Len or Vivek saying it probably wouldn’t happen.)  Streetcars are unlikely to return to Dolores, Valencia and Guerrero either.


I wrote this post knowing that Detroit will rebuild/rebrand itself in the near future by bringing back “railroad tracks” and “trains” on city streets.  It will be a smaller city, but a city with streetcars again.

Downtown Oakland (aka theDTO) experienced glory in no small part because of our intra-city and inter-city rail systems.  We used to have good ground-level trains here. Being close to San Francisco’s earthquake-phobic gold and silver flippers helped as 1906 quake ‘fugees fled to the East Bay, hipster style but for different reasons. The World War Two economy also greatly aided Oakland’s ramping up, with Kaiser’s ship-building yards (yes, that Kaiser) and the Ford plant in Richmond among other things we used to make here.

It is probably more accurate to say Oakland’s glory was due to its strong, productive economy, and that streetcars were a symptom of its largess.

We have the 1R and 72R rapid AC Transit buses which are good, decent terrain for cycling, and BART for working in Fremont or SF, but a street car system would be Ooo-la-la! Much less jerky than busses, supportable sometimes with wind and solar and even those dang BloomEnergy BloomBoxes everyone’s yapping about today[weeks ago]. If Oakland ever gets a BloomBox fuel cell system, it should be installed right in the midst of EBMUD’s sewage treatment plant — plenty of “directed biogas” available there!  But back to today’s topic: Oakland and its former streetcar rail lines.

Oh, and sorry to bring it up again before that, I know this is a really annoying inconvenient truth about what propelled our shared “American Dream.” Oakland’s growth and upward ascent to glory was powered by a GIGANTIC heaping of really cheap crude oil (diesel and gasoline), coal, lumber, and other natural resources America had back then.  Oakland also had fewer people to feed and water. If you have a certain amount of work to do, and a set budget, will people earn more money or less money as the total number of people increases?  Less money, that’s right.  So fewer people enjoyed using more resources/money back in the day.

That would be an argument for why Oakland will never get street cars, despite Portland, Seattle, Phoenix, Houston, Minneapolis, Charleston, San Francisco, San Diego, New Orleans, putting them in.  A streetcar starter line only costs $150MM.  Oakland’s entire budget excluding unfunded pension liabilities is $1,100MM.  Surely we could sacrifice a little short-term money if we wanted to, for the long-term gain in 200-300% increased property taxes, cultural and transit cachet we can be proud of, and tens of millions of dollars in private Real Estate investment a streetcar would bring in.

There are huge B&W photos inside the Kaiser Center showing Oakland after its post-war 1950s heydays. You won’t see a single streetcar in these gallery sized 1960s photos.  Sears was a Capwell’s that people could access directly from the streetcars… and later from 1970s+ 19th St BART station. It had awnings over the doors, and plenty of paying customers. The empty lots by 2022 and FOX Theater formerly had commercial buildings on them.  You can see this in my AC Transit post from last week.

Detroit had similar surface rail to Oakland before our blessed car and oil companies conspired to tear these systems out all over the United States.  Detroit today is now on course to bringing it all back. How can Oakland fall behind Motor City DETROIT, if we are so green as Mayor Dellums said in his State of the City address this week? Reminder of what Detroit is like sometimes:

Here’s a conceptual image of what Detroit’s privately funded rail should look like circa 2012:

Remember that Detroit unlike Oakland has access to gobs of rain and the Great Lakes — tons of water, if less sun and some snow.  So that city may end up being way more sustainable than Oakland or other California cities.  California is “semi-arrid” half of the year.

Next question.

Who would finance Oakland’s streetcar rail system?

My guesses:

  • Kaiser
  • Kaiser
  • Clorox
  • Kaiser
  • PG&E?
  • Oracle??
  • private developers
  • private citizens, mostly rich ones up in the hills
  • The Feds
  • Kaiser

And that’s all.   Foreign countries are no longer buying US Treasury bonds and are ditching any state and muni bonds they’ve held.  So even if politicians, ACT and BART were all for this project, it still probably wouldn’t happen.

But wait, don’t people say the Bay Area spends about $40 BILLION dollars on gasoline every year?  Surely if there was will-power, there would be “money” and energy to pour into streetcars on Oakland’s main streets.  After we start having economically and geologically induced fuel shortages from the reality of living on a finite planet, won’t it be nice to have the option of taking a streetcar around Oaktown instead of only biking or walking?

Where Oakland’s streetcar line should be put in: Telegraph, Broadway, International.  Maybe first leg could be Jack London to Bway/51st.

OK, enough daydreaming, back to “1R Plus” or BRT implementation…………  or peep these juicy streetcar films & photos from LA/Pasadena. Thanks to Chris Kidd for these links too:


4 responses to “Downtown Oakland needs its rail back

  1. South Bend, Indiana is also looking to bring back its streetcar system. Mayor Luecke wants to connect downtown with the University of Notre Dame. I think it’s a great idea. We need better public transportation across the United States.

  2. i’d go to nimby nirvana if there were a street car line on bway replacing the now and future noisy, stinky buses.

    but yes, i don’t see public taxing itself to pay for financing of such when California will have to go the way NYS will probably go: issuing bonds just to cover current operating expenses.

    It’s easy to see now why bus and street car lines were started by private investors in the days before massive public borrowing for infrastructure.

    -len raphael

  3. Sadly (I think, at least!), I think you’re both right that the age of publicly-funded infrastructure is over. BUT—we shouldn’t write off private developers so quickly. Sure, there’s not much happening on that front today. But in the future, who knows? A streetcar plan—or any kind of fixed route transit system—would be ten years out at a minimum, and probably more like 20-30. It’s hard to think about now, but we won’t always be in this down economy and housing market. And there are already some existing agreements for developers (yep, Kaiser…but others too!) to come up with transit solutions (“transportation demand management”) to keep people using their projects off of the already-congested streets and freeways. Add to that any future potential development in West Alameda and Emeryville, which both have similar needs to meet environmental requirements, and you’ve got a lot of people who need to find some transit to pay for. (The Emery-Go-Round is already paid for in part by developers as mitigation for added traffic; there’s a lot of interest in Emeryville in a streetcar or other solution that might connect to Oakland transit at MacArthur BART.)

    It’s a long shot, yes—but there are opportunities out there. I hope the study moves forward, because (as much as everyone hates studying things ad finitum) it’s a necessary first step in figuring out what is and isn’t likely to be possible. I, for one, would love to see some real transit on Broadway!

  4. (That should say ad infinitum. Ad finitum would be nice too of course! ;))

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s