Where To Catch The Streetcar

by Allan Appel | March 5, 2008 11:31 AM | | Comments (21)

nhistreetcar%20001.JPGIf you are looking at a future historical photograph here, the caption may well read: “New Haven transit chief Mike Piscitelli and James H. Graebner, fathers of the New Haven’s post-modern, back-to-the future streetcar system.”

Grabener is a consultant/street car system designer from Denver-based TranSystems, has built scores of streetcar systems from little Kenosha, Wisconsin, to Portland, Oregon. He laid out for some 40 enthusiasts at a City Hall meeting Tuesday night the particulars of just one of many possibilities for New Haven: A 3.6 mile loop of fixed rails in the street and electrified overhead wires connecting Union Station to City Hall, the Yale campus and medical center, across Dwight and back down South Church to the station again.

For the full proposed route — one of many options — and the complete powerpoint presented by Graebner and city transportation czar Piscitelli, click here. (And click here for a previous article and extensive reader discussion of the project.)

This option would cost about $30 million, or about $7.6 million per mile, and circulate one way.

The laid-back consultant said that another vision, a linear line, going both ways, not a loop, from the medical center could shoot right out to Science Park. And a spur could be added later to go to the train station as Route 34 gets developed.

Or should a line cut right through the Green?

“That might be nice, but it’s all really up to you,” he said. “You know your city best.”

nhistreetcar%20005.JPGTranSystems, which has been retained by Piscitelli’s department under a $150,000 grant from the South Central Connecticut Regional Council of Governments, is preparing a report. It’s studying how to return New Haven to a technology launched in 1861 with a horse-drawn streetcar serving State & Chapel, and ended on Sept. 25, 1948, when the last of the city’s considerable streetcar lines was converted to bus.

Out of this meeting, Piscitelli said, “We’re hoping to enlist a real cadre of volunteers who love this idea and will sign up to form the core of a kind of task force to help advise us to take it to the next step.”

Graebner said the sine qua non for any streetcar project to be successful is having what he termed a “champion.” That might be an individual or a group. Among other requirements for success, he suggested are a downtown that is thriving or about to; a good economic development plan in process so that a streetcar system can serve to advance it; and a city that’s planning far ahead.

“In New Haven,” he said, “you’ve got this all. “The building is not that complicated. We go back to material written 100 years ago, because the laws of physics just don’t change in 100 years.” The political will and the drive of the citizens are what matter.

nhistreetcar%20003.JPGThe assembled group, such as super bus stop advocate Mary Johnson, had a lot of drive. “I’m just concerned,” she said, “that with such a little system of streetcars, we’re still going to be stuck with all the stinking buses.”

Graebner said Little Rock’s initial system covered 2.5 miles. “That was in 2000. In 2004, they added another mile, and it’s been so successful - -economic development clusters around streetcars — that they are considering extending a line to the airport.”

In its origins, the system developed in phases. So, he tried to reassure Johnson, so it would this back-to-the-future edition.

Traffic-calming and pedestrian friendly advocates such as Alderwoman Erin Sturgis-Pascale and Anstress Farwell, president of the New Haven Urban Design League, raised questions about the loop versus the linear route.

“I’m with you,” Graebner said to the alderwoman. “I’m a recovering planner. I’m with you, a believer in lines going up and down the same streets, so people can cross over and go the other way so that it’s easy and logical.”

nhistreetcar%20002.JPGFarwell asked whether placing rails in the road would prevent a conversion of New Haven’s one-way streets into two-way streets.

“No,” Graebner answered, “all that can be taken into consideration.”

As to the financing, he said streetcars — as opposed to busses — tap into a nostalgia and positive associations. In Tampa, the local electric utility paid $1 million for the system to be named after it. Other corporations buy the naming of stations or individual cars. An antique-style car may cost as much as $900,000, and a newer-looking one $2.5 million.

Piscitelli said that Graebner and his team had spent only four or five days in the city examining possible routes and talking to various constituencies. “This is a real learning process for us all,” said the traffic chief. “We started out thinking about connecting different points, but then as we talked to people, such as the Town Green Special District and Jim [Graebner], we realized that we had densities of people in New Haven that would like to move but can’t. Like the swarms of people around the medical center at lunch time. That’s as dense as New York City. What if we had a street car line that could move those people easily into the city to the restaurants and then back, so they don’t have to cluster around the food carts?

“Everyone we talked to,” said Piscitelli, “told us to tighten up the route, build on population densities, not loop the route, but to go linear, up and down.”

Why should the city be serving Yale populations, someone wanted to know, when Yale transit does that?

Another questioner asked, “Is the idea to create economic development, or to move people?”

The answer was, of course, both. Sturgis-Pascale said that streetcars on a linear line connect neighborhoods and are also, of course, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly.

“But only,” Graebner said, “if you teach people on bicycles, what is logical, that is, you need to cross the tracks at 90 degrees.” The idea of the streetcars is that they move in traffic, like any vehicle, following all the rules.

What of the current trolley system, whose ridership has steadily declined?

“We have wannabe trolleys or streetcars,” Sturgis-Pascale said. “They are electric buses. Let’s do the real thing.”

Graebneer tended to agree. Then, considering circular or straight routes, added, “Loops, in my opinion, are a snare and a delusion. It just seems like you’re serving people.”

Piscitelli seemed to suggest in the end that he’d come around to feeling the best approach was to create a small, modest successful linear, two-way route building on dense populations. It would go hand-in-hand with economic development, and not foreclose on any possibilities. It would expand as funding (public and/or private) becomes available. But he was open to TranSystem’s final report and next steps.

He asked people wanting to serve on his task force should contact him. The next step will be for TranSystem to create its final report, and then, based on that, advise on what’s called “stakeholder” concurrence, funding options, and preliminary design.

nhistreetcar%20004.JPGAnd volunteers? This man, Bill Wall, stepped up. He just happens to be the director of the Trolley Museum in East Haven (and a volunteer at that, his day job being in operations for New York City Transit). The Trolley Museum is built on a circa 1900 track for street cars connecting New Haven with Stony Creek.

Oh, and in May he’s having an exhibition on the old New Haven streetcar system, which just might be in the first stage of being reborn.

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Posted by: DEZ | March 5, 2008 12:31 PM

I'm all for the streetcar, and excited that this may become a reality. BUT, during the latest sewer separation in Fair Haven, the time was ripe for adding additional traffic calming measures to the streets under construction. Dick Miller even proposed that innovative designs were coming, then NOTHING! The streets were replaced in their original 'speedway' configuration. The time is ripe for designing a streetcar that CONNECTS New Haven for ALL New Haveners. A Linear line that runs through the neighborhoods that desperately will benefit from the infrastructure improvements both unites the city and offers transportaion choices. The potential loop that is shown does little for the city resident not living in close proximity to downtown. This is the chance for New Haven to do it right from the START!

Posted by: DingDong | March 5, 2008 12:52 PM

So when is the report coming out and what exactly will the report have? Different options with cost and ridership projections?

Posted by: cedarhillresident [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 5, 2008 1:29 PM

Hmmm the rumor is the bus company (James Street) may be moving there base to WTBY. Can we look at restoring that back to a trolley house? Which Bill Wall is fully aware was the original trolley house.

Posted by: charlie | March 5, 2008 1:41 PM

Good question, Dingdong. And the most obvious.

Streetcars contribute to economic development in a way that buses do not. It's time to put them in ASAP. Start with a small, successful two-way line going to the train station, and then expand it as political support grows.

Posted by: jackie | March 5, 2008 3:21 PM

As usual, the Simpsons say it all...


Posted by: daniel sumrall | March 5, 2008 3:38 PM

Don't call Kenosha "little," it's practically the same size as New Haven with an almost identical history and with very similar issues.

Posted by: DingDong | March 6, 2008 2:09 AM

The total failure of the Register to cover this story is perplexing too. Way to go Independent!

Posted by: dylan | March 6, 2008 9:21 AM

Mike Piscitelli & Co. are looking for input with regard to possible streetcar routes. What better forum than the Independent?

Ideally, this city would eventually have a system that has lines on all major streets. But for now, the important thing is to find one to kick things off that will have the most success.

The key for success will be balancing two things:
First, immediate ridership because of a connection (say a 1/4 mile walk) to existing strengths (like the train station, residential population, employment centers and institutions like universities, hospitals, etc).
Second, development potential of underutilized properties along the route (vacant properties, surface parking lots, etc. And these need not necessarily be a couple of acres. The city is dotted with half acre empty lots which could wonderfully built out with a little ingenuity. Bigger infill lots have great potential too).

My suggestion would be considering the corridor including Grand Avenue, Elm Street, and Whalley Avenue. Another would be some more north-south link including Union Station and the Medical area, but I don't have anything specific, so I'll stick with my first suggestion.

Any other possibilities?

Posted by: Esbe [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 6, 2008 11:32 AM

I like the idea of a route that goes Train Station / Downtown / Yale / Science Park. That opens big development possibilities around Science Park and Newhallville at one end, and also the train station at the other end. Plus it connects the train station to the core activities in the center of the city. Later, I could see a second line that would go Train Station / Hospitals / Westville.

Posted by: DingDong | March 6, 2008 12:24 PM

Isn't something like YNH-Union Station-State Street Station-Elm Street then either down Whalley or up to Science Park possible? That would seem to get all the advantages of the other routes suggested.

Posted by: Bill Saunders | March 6, 2008 3:41 PM

So, why should we wait for a study?

Let's reroute the empty streetcars to link Union Station to Downtown NOW, and see what happens.

(I guarantee ridership will increase a thousand-fold)

Posted by: jackie | March 6, 2008 7:10 PM

i'm with you on that, bill--especially if the shuttle/"trolley" such as it is remained free, since it seems "you can't give it away" on its current route.

Posted by: Carole [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 6, 2008 8:41 PM

"Sturgis-Pascale said that streetcars on a linear line ... are also, of course, pedestrian and bicycle-friendly."

How so? Slower driving speeds, traffic law enforcement, better driver education, more bike lanes -- those are pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. Streetcars would be eco-friendly. But how does it help pedestrians and bicyclists -- especially cyclists -- to have a new obstacle in the streets, complementing the potholes, broken glass, debris, etc.? Our current buses are certainly not bike-friendly (except for the bike racks on front, which are great).

If I'm missing something here, please explain.

Posted by: Esbe [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 6, 2008 8:45 PM

Another variation would be to make sure the trolley traveled up and down College St. and Prospect through the Yale campus on its way to Science Park. Yale is looking to "connect" the southern part of its campus to its new residential colleges on Prospect close to Sci Park. In return for Yale students getting free off-peak use, Yale could be asked to pay a very large part of the operating subsidies for the trolley.

Posted by: ball-zee [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 7, 2008 9:07 AM

I am a found beliver in city improvements, however, a streetcar for the Yale community does little for the plight of the common folk. I think the overweight people of New Haven can do for a good walk and downtowners can get a bike instead of boosting the tax payers burden for a wasteful streetcar. This resident is against the destruction of the streets.

Posted by: dwightstreetrenter [TypeKey Profile Page] | March 7, 2008 10:15 AM

make taking public transit a viable ALTERNATIVE to driving, and you'll see more people using it! Make it elegant or seemingly-upscale, like the Criterion is to the movie-going crowd (at the same price as a "conventional" theatre), and more people will use it. Routes that serve DESTINATIONS, unlike the current electric bus which often skips stops and goes in an endless route for those without a day job, and people will use mass transit!

A route connecting park-and-ride lots, hospitals, downtown, East Rock (or Egewood) Park, Lighthouse Point, Westville to State St, and upper Whitney to Downtown would move POPULATIONS, not DEMOGRAPHICS.

If the mass transit option were more visible, like tracks on the road, more reliable, like regular train service, and more economically-feasible than paying for car insurance, gas and parking; people WILL CHOOSE this as an option.

It doesn't seem like it would be a problem to modify the current cars-are-king infrastructure, and add some rail to the streets. Just think of the reduced cost of maintaining the roads wthout all those buses!

Unless we go back to the days where the electric trolley cars were the ONLY option for the average family to get to Lighthouse Park from downtown in a reasonable amount of time, I don't foresee the electric trolley rail option being more than a smart solution to getting people out of their cars for short trips around the main population centers and to the train station.

If people could take a trolley from Crown St at 2am on a Saturday night to the train station (with corresponding trains from Union Station), perhaps downtown New Haven would become an actual DESTINATION, like NYC or Boston or Providence.

If you want people to ditch their cars, the alternative must WORK and it must be CONVENIENT!

Posted by: T-Bone | March 7, 2008 12:37 PM

Street cars look great and sound wonderful. However, in reality they tend to examples of wasteful "feel good" planning. Buses offer a much more flexible, efficient, and cost effective way of transporting people. The idea of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT)has been implemented with astounding success in other parts of the world.

I noticed most of the people interviewed for this article weren't from the lower-income 1/3 of New Haven households that don't have access to a car. Many of these people rely on the buses to get to jobs and won't benefit from a limited street car serving the downtown. What would benefit them immensely, would be additional bus routes and more frequent service.

It's unfair to tax all residents in order to pay for a flashy streetcar system that will cost a tremendous amount of taxpayer money and serve significantly fewer people and locations than could be done with improved bus service that could be implemented quicker at a fraction of the cost.

As I said, street cars look wonderful, but when you get down to it, they are often money pits that simply don't benefit the people that need transit service the most.


Posted by: jackie | March 7, 2008 2:41 PM

i see your point, T-Bone--you can click on the simpsons "monorail" link above for evidence of my skepticism.

there is definitely a serious deficiency, as far as i see it, in the bus schedules now, though--if i work later, until 7 or 8 or 9 pm (and there are many for whom those are regular clock-out times), i have to wait a full hour for a bus (usually some variation on the B) that doesn't really take me where i need to go. not to mention if i go out after work. i'd better be ready to wait an hour or more...

it seems what people are getting at here, though, and perhaps not without basis (evidence?), is that the introduction of a streetcar system would encourage ridership (and i suppose eventually increased frequency) in ways that buses simply never will, for whatever reason. i guess there is ultimately some psychological block for some people with buses. ("crash" deals with one of but *many* sides of this i guess--.) so then if there are studies that say streetcars bring increased businesses (jobs) along routes, etc., maybe this is good for the city long term?

i think that as long as a streetcar system is intended eventually both to move people around town *and* bring in the people who rely on public transportation to get to work, such as myself, it's a good idea, if a compelling argument can be made that streetcars will bring about an increase in schedule *frequency* and economic benefit that buses simply will not. but i'd want to see some good numbers, despite my instincts.

i also agree that the discussion appears top-heavy in terms of who the intended ridership is. but -- what if the lower-income 1/3 people had better access, e.g., to union station from any of the many thoroughfares like whalley, dixwell, grand? would that mean more flexibility in terms of places to work?

if we built it, will they come (more frequently)?

Posted by: Kevin | March 8, 2008 10:37 AM

A couple of thoughts in response to T-Bone. First, streetcars can be integrated with the bus system to encourage people to use public transit (Graebner discussed this at the meeting). Second, while bus rapid transit has real potential, it needs a dedicated right of way to work. In New Haven, this would mean eliminating a lane of traffic each way, which I suspect would be a tough sell. The experience of the Hartford busway (which was funded nearly a decade ago and is not yet under construction)suggests that this option is not a silver bullet.

Posted by: DingDong | March 8, 2008 2:35 PM

"But how does it help pedestrians and bicyclists -- especially cyclists -- to have a new obstacle in the streets, complementing the potholes, broken glass, debris, etc.?"

It is certainly true having to watch for rails is something else for cyclists to worry about, but I think the idea is 1) the presence of streetcars is known to slow cars, which is good for cyclists 2) many cyclists would probably support a streetcar because it would mean more people could rely on a car less often. I think most cycling advocates in New Haven aren't just pro-cycling and anti-everything else, but, instead, are generally motivated by concerns about the environmental and social costs of cars.

Posted by: david streever | March 11, 2008 1:14 PM

I'm not sure where the notion of street cars as "wasteful" began, but I suspect it has to do with the car companies buying street cars and decomissioning them ;-)

Buses suck gas & are way too freaking big for New Haven's small streets. They hold up traffic, are obstructions, and are dangerous for cyclists & pedestrians & drivers.

I think most cyclists in New Haven would endorse smaller, less obstructive, less polluting street cars over gigantic buses any day of the week....

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