Wednesday, March 5, 2008

A streetcar named...New Haven

City takes a look at bringing back streetcar service
By Elizabeth Benton
and William Kaempffer
Register Staff
— We’ve got buses, cars, bikes and even a trolley. Now the city is considering bringing back streetcars, which rolled through New Haven from 1860 to 1948.
Director of Colorado-based TransSystems James Graebner conducted a “blitz study” of the city’s infrastructure and transportation system over the past several days, examining where and how a streetcar line might work.
“You have to have a city that’s looking ahead,” Graebner said before making a public presentation to about 30 people in City Hall, “which sounds strange when you’re talking about a streetcar, which is a 100-year-old technology.
“The laws of physics haven’t changed that much in the last century.”Streetcars are seeing newfound popularity, with systems already in place in Portland, Ore.; San Jose, Calif.; Denver; Memphis; Tampa, Fla.; Lowell, Mass.; and elsewhere.
The electrified cars can be a catalyst for economic development, he claimed, that doesn’t happen with wheeled trolleys, like the city currently runs, or buses. It might be that there is a physical permanence to the tracks and overhead wires that signal to developers a community resolve and investment, he theorized.
Whatever the case, Little Rock, Ark., realized about $140 million in new development along the streetcar line.
Don’t get romantic visions of San Francisco just yet. The idea is in its most formative stages. No funding has been secured or even requested and even if the project gains momentum there will still be years of talking before a foot of track is laid. The city started the public conversation Tuesday.
Graebner threw out one possible route: A 3.5-mile loop from Union Station, up Columbus Avenue to Church Street, onto Grove Street, north onto Chapel Street, up to Dwight Street, and back down South Frontage and Church to the train station would cost about $30 million to build. Operating the line seven days a week, 12 hours a day and 16 hours on weekends, with a 10-minute wait between cars, would cost about $2 million a year, Graebner said.
The goal, according to city Transportation, Traffic and Parking Director Michael Piscitelli, is to connect “pocket populations,” promoting ease of movement from the train station or, say, linking the somewhat isolated Yale Medical School area, segregated from the rest of the city by the Route 34 connector, to the restaurants downtown that would love to feed them.
The concept was generally well received, although two longtime mass transit advocates questioned the loop.
The proposed route connects areas that are already covered by Yale Transit, they said, but stops short of reaching the outlying neighborhoods, catering to a small group of people “who happen to be the elite,” said Mary Johnson, who was among a group that fought for the return of downtown bus stops for a decade.
But advocates countered that there has to be a viable starting point, supported by a strong tax base, and then expansion can come later.
If Phil Fry, assistant general manager for CT Transit, was put off by the occasional bus-bashing at the meeting, he didn’t betray it.
“I think in a lot of other communities, buses, streetcars, light rail, it all works together,” he said, adding, “I don’t look at it as a competition. There’s always going to be a synergy.”
The city has dabbled in four-wheeled trolleys for years but the idea never caught on, costing around $220,000 to $250,000 to run each year, and only attracting 40,000 people annually.
The city is considering moving the trolley route to focus more on the train station, but must wait until the new fiscal year, which begins July 1, to state the formal process that would allow for a route change.

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