Visions of Vintage Trolleys Are Probably Pipe Dreams

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.

"I think everyone here still thinks providing trolleys or some kind of light-rail is a good way to grow the city," says Travers. He adds that Mayor John DeStefano's administration, which is on its way out, will leave a recommendation for a streetcar system for the incoming administration.

In Stamford, which has now displaced Hartford as Connecticut's third-largest city, concerns about how a trolley line would impact local real estate were a major issue, Fedeli says. Despite predictions that it would improve property values, some residents worried the rails would eat up needed street space and feared there wouldn't be enough riders to make it pay.

"It's really just very expensive," says Jim Cameron, a spokesman for the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council. "You really have to provide a high-ridership density."

Some planning gurus have shifted their aim from trolleys to buses as a cheaper, quicker fix to our transportation troubles.

"In a lot of cities like New Haven, I think we would do better improving and amplifying the bus systems," says Rubin. Buses are more flexible, they're getting more environmentally friendly, and it doesn't cost near as much to create new bus programs as it does to build a new trolley line.

Well, except for the New Britain-to-Hartford Busway that is. That $560 million project involves tearing up an existing rail line to put in a new bus-only route of less than 10 miles. The busway is intended to relieve the ever-increasing gridlock along I-84 between those two cities.

The problem is, critics point out, that no one knows for sure how many motorists will give up their cars to ride those buses.

"The bus has an image problem," says Rubin. "It's not as hip, not as cool as light-rail."

There is also a racial tinge to the bus issue. "In New Haven," explains Rubin, "our transportation system is segregated… It's an income-based segregation that often correlates to race."

It isn't isolated to New Haven. In Hartford, Bridgeport and other cities, poor people are mostly the ones who ride buses, and poor people in Connecticut tend to be black or Hispanic.

Middle and upper-class folks (mostly white people, in other words) drive cars in this state. "If I had my way, I'd give buses a whole new image uplift," Rubin says.

That could happen as the traffic grows worse on Connecticut highways and roads, as it's certain to do. And when that occurs, maybe spending hundreds of millions of dollars on new busways and trolley lines won't seem so impossible.

"People will start getting out of their cars when they can't handle the traffic anymore," Rubin says. "But you have to create viable options."

"If the barrier to entry [into a mass transit system] is at all high," he warns, "people will say 'Screw it – I'd rather sit in traffic and listen to the radio.'"

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