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JEDC hosts revitalization talks for downtown

Housing, beautification and transit topics of discussion

Posted: September 16, 2012 - 12:12am

The Juneau Economic Development Council hosted a meeting for downtown revitalization groups and stakeholders, Monday at the Hangar Ballroom.

The night’s keynote speaker was Keith Jones, west coast regional transit director for URS. The company builds streetcar and bus transit systems among other products.

Three stakeholder groups, made up of local architects, real estate developers, business owners and City and Borough of Juneau staff met over the previous months and have decided on three main initiatives to revitalize downtown Juneau – additional housing, improved aesthetics and transit-oriented development.

The initiatives were categorized as infrastructure attitudes and retail and business services.

Greg Fisk, champions the effort to enhance downtown transit oriented development. This development could be built around a “circulator” transit system.

“One of the things that is very important is how people get around downtown,” Fisk said.

Juneau had an innovative bus-based public transit circulator in the early 1980s, Fisk said.

Fisk said that when he first worked on the idea of a circulator while at CBJ Docks and Harbors, the primary focus was on transporting tourists around downtown. This use, he said, was not enough to justify a circulator. However, he said, a proper downtown circulator system can be a catalyst.

“It’s much bigger than just moving people it is all about stimulating economic development,” Fisk said. And the city won’t be able to revitalize downtown on its own, he said. “Most importantly [a circulator] gives developers the assurances they need to do the investments that they need downtown.”

A public transit circulator could enhance the City and Borough of Juneau Comprehensive Plan recommendation to improve pedestrian access in and around Juneau’s downtown and Willoughby areas.

The downtown transportation group looked at using buses for the circulator system, Fisk said, “and we’ve looked at something that for some people may seem pretty radical, and that is streetcars.”

As with Juneau’s Capital Transit bus system, the fare box is not expected to cover all costs of the circulator.

“Building a streetcar system is an expensive way to collect coins,” Fisk said Keith Stone had observed. “We want to get people on it and riding,” Fisk said.

The payoff of a circulator may be indirect, Fisk said. A $25 million streetcar system could spark $100 million worth of development along the route.

“Which is not out of the realm of possibility at all,” Fisk said.

A circulator extends a pedestrian’s reach, making the whole of downtown accessible, Fisk said. As an example, pedestrians can ride to lunch and ride back to work over the lunch hour. Frequency is important in this regard. Circulators could pass by every 15 to 20 minutes. Fisk said.

The transit group mapped out a possible circulator route. From the Rock Dump, through the cruise ship areas, up to the capital building area, around to the transit center and Willoughby district, the Federal Building, Juneau Douglas high school and the area under the Douglas Bridge.

“These are the points that we want to connect,” Fisk said.

Streetcars or light rail?

At about 20 percent the typical cost of light rail systems, streetcars tend to service shorter routes, share existing road ways with cars and trucks and use less expensive, lighter carriages than light rail systems. Streetcars are used to extend a pedestrian’s walking or biking access.

Keynote Keith Stone of URS spoke about options regarding an electric streetcar for use as the circulator.

The Portland Streetcar route in Portland Ore. was the first URS streetcar project. The nearly 4-mile route carries and average of 11,000 passengers each day.

URS boasts new municipal clients, El Paso, Atlanta, Arlington, St. Louis and Oklahoma City.

Since streetcars share roadways with existing traffic, Jones said, in general they obey the rules of the road. Though some specialized signals may be needed, he said.

Streetcar stop can be as simple as “glorified bus stops,” Jones said.

Streetcars travel at 10- to 20-miles per hour and can handle the steep grades found in downtown Juneau.

Route construction typically proceeds at about a block a week. In recent builds, Jones said, URS has only had to excavate down into the roadway about a foot. This avoids moving or disrupting existing utilities, he said.

Electric streetcars require around 600 volts of direct current power, Jones said. Overhead lines or battery can supply this energy, he said.

“You can do a car 100 percent battery powered,” Jones explained. “Here in Juneau that might be a feasible option. Another method could combine overhead power where possible, supplemented with a smaller battery in a hybrid approach. Streetcars can also run on diesel.”

Municipalities can select from restored, vintage cars, replica cars with some refurbished parts and modern, new-build carriages. The appearance of the system is important, Jones said. “It will be an icon of your city.”

• Contact reporter Russell Stigall at 523-2276 or at russell.stigall@juneauempire.com.

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