West Main Streetcar

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West Main Streetcar
proposed route


Project Overview

encourage denser infill development along West Main
Cost Est. $23 million for phase 1.[1]
Sponsor Streetcar Task Force

Status Update

no progress since task force report in 2008.

The West Main Streetcar was a proposed streetcar system in Charlottesville discussed in the early 21st century, beginning with a line along West Main Street connecting the Downtown Mall with the University of Virginia. The idea was studied by a Streetcar Task Force that presented a report to City Council in June of 2008. Council did not opt to proceed the matter further.


Charlottesville's first streetcar system was built along West Main Street in 1887 by the Charlottesville and University Street Railway Company with privately raised local capital. This track carried horse-drawn cars initially, until the Charlottesville City & Suburban Railway Company ran the first electric streetcar in 1895, collecting 2,000 fares in its first two days of operation. [2] [3]

The horse-drawn and electric-powered streetcar tracks were combined in 1896, leading to the end of horse-powered streetcars in Charlottesville [4].[dead link]

Charlottesville's streetcar lines served more than 1.5 million passengers annually by the early 1900s.

The Charlottesville City & Suburban Railway Company was sold at auction on November 10, 1903. [5]

The streetcar company eventually failed in 1935.[4] There were two primary reasons: a crippling embezzlement, and the absentee owner power company's managerial indifference to maintenance and upgrades, contributed to the increasingly dilapidated system's decline—but the main reason was 1930's loss of ridership to the greater convenience of cars.[6]

21st century streetcar?

The Alliance for Community Choice in Transportation ("ACCT") commissioned the firm DJM+Harris Planning to assess Charlottesville’s transportation network in 2004. Engineer Roger Millar suggested a streetcar along West Main Street would support a dense zone of development between the City’s two thriving economic centers - the Corner district to the west, and the Downtown Mall to the east. West Main functions as the main connector between Charlottesville’s two social and financial hubs, but the DJM+Harris study proposed that the city ought to make the corridor a destination in and of itself.

Later in 2004, ACCT arranged a grant from the Blue Moon Fund to fly a group of local architects, developers, politicians, and city planners to Portland, Oregon for three days to check out that city's new streetcar system. The group also visited the streetcar system in Tacoma, Washington.[7]

Since that trip, several individuals have focused on potential streetcar implementation in this area, including designer Gary Okerlund and former mayor Maurice Cox, two members of the Streetcar Task Force. Okerlund Design Associates in particular has looked most closely at the design and what specific architecture is needed along a streetcar route. City Council officially commissioned a Charlottesville Streetcar Task Force in 2007. Council heard their report on June 16, 2008 and indicated they would support a further study if members of the business community would help pay for it. [1]

Route plans

A photo-simulation of how the streetcar might look on West Main Street

Evaluation of the West Main corridor revealed that it would likely be able to host a single streetcar track in the middle of the street. In the event of a streetcar stop, the track would split in two, with a stop creating a new median. This enables a potential streetcar to run on a predictable schedule without interruption from normal street traffic, with the additional benefit that riders getting on and off would only have to cross one lane of vehicular traffic.[citation needed] The streetcar envisioned for Charlottesville would not only have its own lane free of automobiles, it will be able to electronically change stop lights to ensure it stays on schedule.[7]

However, Collette Hall, then President of the North Downtown Association, voiced the concern that adding a lane for streetcars on Main Street could reduce the space for bike lanes and parking– two reasons her Association opposed the streetcar system. "And the third reason," said Hall, "is that one of our goals is underground utilities. We used to have so many big, beautiful trees in Charlottesville that have been cut back and killed to protect the wires. Now we have very narrow sidewalks with a lot of intruding utility poles. People want to be pedestrians and want underground wires, but we'll see more [streetcar] wires overhead and more ugliness reaching out to the side of the road."[7]

Phase 1

The Downtown Transit Center is the proposed initial streetcar stop in Phase 1, while 1.2 miles away it will terminate at the intersection of West Main and Jefferson Park Avenue. In between, streetcar planners hope to create a model of transit-oriented development, with stops every few blocks intended to promote economic development within close walking distance along the length of the corridor.

Okerlund told City Council he believed this first phase would cost around $23 million[1].

Phase 2

A later expansion could go through the Corner to the intersection of West Main, Ivy Road, and Emmet Street.

Phase 3

The final phase would travel Emmet to Barracks Road.

The Pro and Con on Streetcars


Okerlund said the streetcar will further encourage infill development along West Main Street by providing a reliable way to get around. According to Todd Gordon, his colleague and fellow task force member, a rail-based transit line generally has a "sphere of influence" where development can occur within a quarter mile of the tracks. "The biggest part of this is to convince people that a streetcar can do a lot more than just take people somewhere," Gordon. "The streetcar has an ability to attract the dense mixed-use development that I think Charlottesville shown a preference for, and a desire for. And that type of development doesn't spring up around a bus line." "We’re talking about spending a good deal of money, but because the streetcar has a development attraction to it, there’s a return on investment. The type of dense development that a streetcar can attract pays into the tax base, and can eventually pay for itself. [8]

Gordon says that's because bus routes can change, whereas rails in the ground indicate a community’s seriousness about transit. Okerlund says a firm cost-per-mile figure cannot be established until preliminary engineering is performed. That will take a more detailed analysis, similar to the one now authorized in Arlington County. But he says a streetcar in Charlottesville would have a capital cost between $10 and 15 million per mile. That figure would include the trams that would be operated, but not the annual operating budget.

One of the objectives of the Streetcar Task Force has been to identify a variety of sources of funding, including local government, federal dollars and private investments. A key challenge for the task force, and City Council, will be to demonstrate that, in a small town like Charlottesville, that the up front financial investment in a streetcar will pay dividends for the entire community down "the rails." Gordon acknowledges that the system will be very expensive to build, but that it could be worth it.

Developer Frank Stoner, who owns property along West Main, urged Council at their meeting on June 16, 2008 to fund a preliminary engineering study as a way to jump-start investment on the corridor. Stoner said he has property interests along the corridor. "If the City will take a leadership role in funding this, I think private funds will come along," Stoner said. "West Main Street is a fragile corridor. Progress has been made over the last 20 years, but it’s been intermittent, it’s been at a level that is far below expectations in terms of mixed-use, urban density, and I think a streetcar has demonstrated… to be a huge catalyst for private investment and development."


Critics say the retrograde streetcar technology is ill-suited to contemporary cities.[9]

  • Transportation model obsolete: “mixed-traffic streetcars don’t work” is Seattle’s verdict on why its eight year old South Lake Union Trolley (known locally by the slogan "ride the S.L.U.T.") already has to be rebuilt to run in separate lanes.[10][11] But creating an exclusive streetcar lane costs parking, creates conflicts between transit and right-turning cars, worsens bicycling conditions, and frustrates motorists with longer car queues at intersections. Likewise Washington D.C.'s new streetcar project (expected to open in 2015) so far has been a “disaster . . . showing how ill-suited streetcars are to modern urban life.”[12] Even in their heyday 100 years ago streetcars were slow, expensive to operate and maintain, and snarled traffic; on their departure from city streets most said “good riddance.”[13][14]
  • Cost underestimated: Charlottesville's 1.2 mile streetcar line was estimated to cost only $23 million. But the 1.3 mile S.L.U.T. Seattle opened in 2007 cost over $56 million.[15] In addition Seattle's S.L.U.T rider revenues do not cover operating costs: so far it has needed three $4.2 million loans to cover shortages. Likewise a 2.2 mile streetcar in Washington DC opening two years late cost over $200 million.[16][17] The DC streetcar has carried no passengers as yet and is causing accidents in test runs, including hitting a parked police car.[18]
  • Usage overestimated: The S.L.U.T. ridership is falling even though the neighborhood it serves hosts tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft, one of the fastest growing in Seattle. The problem according to the Seattle newspaper is streetcars are slow, inconvenient, and impractical.[19]
  • Economic benefits unproven, unprovable: Portland, Oregon, a city ACCT used as a model, spent $96 million on its streetcar—but that investment is acknowledged to be only one of several factors promoting growth, and its actual contribution cannot be measured.[20] One critic writes that streetcars are “dreams of land-use planners and downtown boosters who imagine that aesthetically pleasing vehicles lumbering in slow circles through walkable areas will somehow prompt a boom in economic activity . . . Yet the fantasy . . . has consistently failed to materialize. . . Many communities get stuck with an eternal loop of empty, expensive white elephants.”[9]

County Supervisors via MPO cool to idea

At the June 23, 2008 meeting of the MPO Policy Board, Councilor Satyendra Huja asked his colleagues in Albemarle County if they would support adding the project to the Transportation Improvement Program, a requirement for the project to receive federal funding.

Supervisor David Slutzky was skeptical, and said he would prefer to see the Regional Transit Authority be the region's large transit-oriented capital project included in the TIP[21].


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Web. Council expresses support for further streetcar study, Sean Tubbs, News Article, Charlottesville Tomorrow, June 17, 2008, retrieved November 10, 2022.
  2. Web. Getting Around: Transportation in Turn-of-the-Century Charlottesville and Albemarle, Charlottesville Historical Society, Charlottesville Area Transit (via Wayback Machine), retrieved November 10, 2022.
  3. Web. This Day in Charlottesville History, City of Charlottesville (via Wayback Machine), retrieved November 10, 2022.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Web. Charlottesville National Register of Historic Places nomination document, Charlottesville Department of Community Development, National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service, Washington, D.C., 1981, retrieved 18 Nov, 2011.
  5. Web. The Street Railway Sold, Daily Progress Digitized Microfilm, Lindsay family, November 10, 1903, retrieved November 10, 2022. Print. November 10, 1903 page 1.
  6. Jefferson Randolph Kean, Charlottesville’s Street Railway System and its Entrepreneurs, 1866-1936 (1980)(George Mason University) (Master’s Thesis, on deposit Albemarle Historical Society.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Web. Streetcar desire: Road rail our next big thing?, Dave McNair, The Hook, Better Publications LLC, December 1, 2005, retrieved November 10, 2022 (via Wayback machine.
  8. Web. A streetcar for West Main, Sean Tubbs, News Article, Charlottesville Tomorrow, January 31, 2008, retrieved November 10, 2022.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Web. The Streetcar Swindle -, Samuel L. Scheib, October 2012, retrieved November 10, 2022.(saying a streetcar like a slow clumsy bus competing with car traffic, will fail. Those more like subways--separated from traffic, multiple doors opening simultaneously, platform ticketing--can succeed in college towns with an agile population and attractive downtown.)
  10. Web. S.L.U.T. streetcar causing a stir - US news - Weird news - Vehicular weirdness, Associated Press, September 18, 2007, retrieved October 14, 2015.
  11. Web. Transit plan for South Lake Union: Drop 2 car lanes, Mike Lindblom, retrieved October 14, 2015.
  12. Web. The Secret Scam of Streetcars: How to Sell a 100-Year-Old Technology as the Future of Transportation - Reason.com, Rob Montz, July 1, 2015, retrieved October 14, 2015.
  13. Web. 10 disasters and embarrassments from the D.C. streetcar's ‘golden era', Sadie Dingfelder, October 1, 2015, retrieved October 14, 2015.
  14. Web. Why would someone steal a streetcar? Um, because it's there?, John Kelley, retrieved October 22, 2015.(saying D.C.streetcars had a lot of accidents even in the 1950's--now the roads are far too crowded for streetcars to return.)
  15. Web. Streetcar cost overruns: What about the next line?, Mike Lindblom, December 23, 2009, retrieved October 14, 2015.
  16. Web. How D.C. spent $200 million over a decade on a streetcar you still can't ride, Michael Lewis, December 5, 2015, retrieved December 6, 2015.
  17. Web. D.C. streetcar approaches final stages - WTOP, Ari Ashe, October 10, 2015, retrieved October 14, 2015.
  18. Web. D.C. streetcar collides with police car. It's still not carrying passengers., Perry Stein, October 2, 2015, retrieved October 14, 2015.
  19. Web. Transit plan for South Lake Union: Drop 2 car lanes, Mike Lindblom, retrieved October 14, 2015.
  20. Web. When It Comes to Streetcars and Economic Development, There's So Much We Don't Know - CityLab, Eric Jaffe, retrieved October 14, 2015.(citing a broader development plan in which zoning, public-private investment, street upgrades, and other renewal efforts played a role).
  21. Tubbs, Sean. "MPO discusses transportation improvements, streetcar." Weblog post. Charlottesville Tomorrow News Center. Charlottesville Tomorrow, 6 June 2008. Web. 4 Aug. 2009. <http://cvilletomorrow.typepad.com/charlottesville_tomorrow_/2008/06/mpo_june2008.html>.


2008 task force report