Trolley

A trolley car at the Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor. (Richard Messina photo / November 20, 2013)

Visions of reviving bits of Connecticut's vanished system of trolleys have been tantalizing urban planners and light-rail enthusiasts for a long time.

Streetcars are sexy. Trolleys are fun. Light-rail would help get those damned gas-guzzling, gridlocking cars off the roads. Once upon a time (like a hundred years ago), you could ride the rails from Hartford to New Haven to Stamford and towns in between for pennies a trip.

Unfortunately, sexy and fun and environmentally friendly and highway de-clogging haven't been enough to bring those dreams anywhere close to reality.

"My impression is that it's not on the immediate or even on the intermediate time horizon," is the way Elihu Rubin, assistant professor of urbanism at the Yale School of Architecture, puts it in academic-speak. In other words, it ain't happening soon.

Proposals for trolley or light-rail lines in Connecticut cities that once drew headlines have withered away for lack of funding or fears that auto-enchanted residents simply can't be lured back to riding the rails.

A New Haven plan was proposed several years ago to create a $30 million, three-mile-long "starter" streetcar system downtown.

"Actually, it stands nowhere," Jim Travers, the city's director of transportation, now says of that concept. "We weren't able to garner enough support on the Board of Aldermen… We just didn't have the funding."

In Stamford, calls for the creation of a $129 million streetcar system failed in a similar fashion. "Basically, it's in mothballs," says Frank Fedeli, Stamford's customer service supervisor.

A couple of years back, Manchester residents were also mulling over the alluring prospect of somehow returning one of its old trolley lines to operation.

"We don't have the population density to support it," explains Mark Pellegrini, the city's director of planning and economic development. "There really is no active pursuit of light-rail in Manchester."

For enthusiasts like Chris Shaw, that's a rather pathetic and short-sighted situation.

Shaw, 27, is one of the volunteers at the Connecticut Trolley Museum in East Windsor. "I just always had a thing for trains and anything rail-related," says Shaw. "When I found out I could drive [trolley cars at the museum], I came down here and now I do a bit of everything."

He believes light-rail systems can work here as they have in places like Kenosha, Wis.; Dallas; Portland, Ore.; and dozens of other cities around the U.S. that have in recent years brought back streetcars.

At the same time, Shaw understands the difficulties. "I'm not really sure what it would take in Connecticut to bring mass light-rail here," he says.

Cost is maybe the biggest villain in this trolley tragedy. That, and the fact we've become a society built around cars.

Until the late 1930s and 1940s, Connecticut had a fantastic web of streetcars and trolley lines that could take you almost anywhere. In 1913, there were more than 1,100 miles of track carrying upwards of 2,400 trolley cars around this state.

Cars and buses changed all that. The last streetcar run in Hartford was made in 1941. New Haven's system — the only one left in Connecticut by then — expired in 1948.

Rubin says people in that era saw cars and buses as "extremely liberating." Folks could be free of the domination of the private companies that ran the rail system; cars and buses were able to change their routes; and people no longer had to plan their trips around where the trolley lines ran.

So the cities ripped up all the tracks or buried them under asphalt. A lot of people today would give almost anything to have them back. Anything but the mountains of money it would take to make that a reality.

The New Haven Board of Aldermen vetoed a plan for the city to spend $180,000 as the city's share of a $900,000 streetcar study as a first step toward creating the pilot streetcar project.