Streetcar Quest Returns For 1 More Try

Almost two years after alders squashed a plan to study the possibility of bringing streetcars New Haven, the city’s new economic development chief is bringing it back to the table.

Matthew Nemerson, the development director, made that announcement Tuesday morning at the year’s first meeting of the Economic Development Commission.

Nemerson recently took the reins of the city’s Economic Development Department. He was installed by new Mayor Toni Harp, who took office Jan. 1.

Nemerson said he has instructed his staff to try to secure nearly $1 million in federal funding for a streetcar feasibility study. With a state commitment to pay for part of the cost, the city would need to contribute less than $100,000 to the effort, Nemerson said.

To apply, the administration needs support from the Board of Alders. Nemerson plans to seek that support. (An earlier version of this story reported the city faces a deadline in coming weeks; Nemerson contacted the Independent later Tuesday to say the city has until the end of September to apply.)

The Board of Alders has twice rejected the proposal, in 2011 and again in 2012. Despite fervid support from streetcar fans in New Haven, alders said the study wasn’t a good use of money and was too focused on downtown.

Board of Alders President Jorge Perez said he can’t predict how the board will receive the streetcar proposal this time around. He said he hopes Nemerson learns from the mistakes of the past by reaching out to a large number of alders and ensuring the study addresses transportation needs throughout the city.

Proponents call the plan a practically free way to start bringing a new form of mass transit downtown. Critics of the plan have focused both on potential future costs to the city; and on the a preliminary route envisioned for the streetcar, which would have served people primarily downtown and in East Rock.

At Tuesday’s Development Commission meeting, City Plan Department staffer Susmitha Attota shared the results of a survey administered last year as part of an effort to update the city’s comprehensive plan. One of the findings: 52 percent of respondents said New Haven needs “more inner city passenger services such as light rail, shuttle service, bus, etc.”

“Unfortunately, the streetcar didn’t go through,” Attota said, referring to the Board of Alders previous rejections of the streetcar study plan.

Thomas MacMillan Photo“We’re coming back!” Nemerson (pictured) said.

“The grant is still out there,” Nemerson said after the meeting. He said the economic development department is already “reaching out” to the board, to “see if we can get people to support it.”

“I just think it’s something we owe it to ourselves to look into,” Nemerson said.

He offered two reasons why.

First, streetcar systems, also known as “light rail,” have been proven to offer a high return on investment, Nemerson said. Cities with light rail see increased property values.

Second, people in New Haven continue to complain of parking and traffic problems downtown, many of which could be addressed by the addition of streetcars.

People who come into town might want to have lunch in one place, then go shopping a short distance away, Nemerson said. They don’t want to have to move their car and fight traffic to look for a new parking space. Light rail offers an easy and fun option for those short trips, Nemerson said.

That’s not to say, however, that the study would necessarily show that light rail is the best option, he said. Maybe it would indicate that the city needs to improve its bus system instead. Either way, the city needs to “study intradowntown point-to-point mobility.”

“I don’t think anyone on the board knows they’re doing that,” Perez said of the new push for a streetcar study.

Perez said that he can speak only for himself, not the whole board, on the issue. “I have no idea how the board would react,” he said. “My first reaction is that the board would be interested in doing what’s right for the whole city. If the administration comes out with a plan that addresses transportation systems for the whole city, we’ll be willing to listen. We’re not against improving traffic flow.”

Perez said he hopes Nemerson will address the problems of past streetcar proposals. Previously, “they only worked with very few people” on the board; other alders felt shut out of the process. And there were rumors that the streetcar system “would be taking property from people,” Perez said People also felt like the streetcar would be “like a replacement for the Yale shuttle.”

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posted by: HewNaven on January 14, 2014  1:19pm

That’s not to say, however, that the study would necessarily show that light rail is the best option, he said. Maybe it would indicate that the city needs to improve its bus system instead. Either way, the city needs to “study intradowntown point-to-point mobility.”

Streetcars are neat, but there are already 3 public transportation routes that serve downtown and East Rock: CT Transit’s M (Orange St)., J (Whitney Ave.), and Q (State St.) routes. In addition there are Yale Transit’s Orange and Blue routes that serve East Rock and Prospect Hill. Why do East Rock resident’s need more options? Why not generally expand and improve bus service?

I hope, if this study goes through, it concludes that CT Transit needs improvement more than anything else.

posted by: anonymous on January 14, 2014  1:43pm

A streetcar study like this one is actually a “streetcar+bus” study. 

The best way to keep our city’s bus system from continuing to decline is to continue to invest in transportation - whether it be streetcars connected with bus lines, or just buses.  A better downtown circulation system can help make all bus routes much more efficient, and allow service to be expanded.

Advancing this should be one of Governor Malloy’s top priorities.

Given that it is completely paid for by the state and Federal government, any vote against this common-sense proposal to improve city transportation should be construed as a vote against our city’s poor, elderly, disabled, people without jobs, and young people—just like it was in past years.

posted by: robn on January 14, 2014  1:48pm

East Rock Doesn’t need a streetcar. East Rock needs more neighborhoods in the city to have property values like East Rock. If there’s a study it should be focused elsewhere to maximize job and development potential. The Whalley or Dixwell Ave corridors spring to my mind as the most logical. (or could be Fair Haven…Chapel St)

posted by: Joe City on January 14, 2014  2:04pm

I know all the new urbanists think this is a great idea, but there is no way New Haven can maintain trolleys and a trolley system, and all you bikers should take a look at old pictures of how Church and Chapel looked with trolley tracks before you jump on board with this boondoggle. Trolleys look quaint in pictures, but fixed rail serves a limited purpose, and with the need to string wires overhead, and the complications it will cause in underground utility construction in the future, it’s not worth the hypothetical “economic benefit.”

posted by: Anderson Scooper on January 14, 2014  2:22pm

Nemerson: “... the City needs to study intradowntown point-to-point mobility”

I guess last decade’s failure didn’t settle the issue?

Fwiw, the transportation model to be studied is the Yale Shuttle, which works really, really well. Can we somehow get CT Transit to follow their example and step into the 21st Century?

Heck, skipping the state bureaucracy, why not a Yale/City partnership for public transportation solutions, with ridership available to everyone? This would be a great project for Yale, (put Downtown Doug Hausladen in charge of it), with benefits across the spectrum.


posted by: Walt on January 14, 2014  2:23pm

The streetcar advocates were not here when we had streetcars in the past, with daily traffic jams due to the lack of flexibility of the systems and the heavy demands for downtown access

How happy we were when they disappeared and the old “E”  line to Fair Haven went down Humphrey Street instead of way around State   ST.  thus saving us much time daily

,Now there is little reason to visit Downtown   and little likelihood   there will be a similar demand in the future as existed then.

They apparently wish to demolish all of the Downtown area for streetcar access which seems to have great expense and favor the return of inflexibility.

The Alders made the right decisions in the past .

Ignore the streetcar advocates   until they offer sensible proposals which justify their massive spending proposals

Nemerson surprisingly wants us to return to the 1950’s and before

Why do they want   streetcars?  Make them tell us sensibly before we meet their spending demands

posted by: TheMadcap on January 14, 2014  2:35pm

“but there is no way New Haven can maintain trolleys and a trolley system,”

Uhhh, you realize we maintain an expansive bus system right? There’s functionally no difference between a trolly and a bus, they serve the same exact purpose. The only purpose of the trolley is to try to get more non poor people to use public transportation. There’s some pretty hilarious irony in the fact 70 years ago the street cars were all torn up for buses. Now some like to point to the street car conspiracy, and obviously GM and others had a motivation to see the trolleys go, but the fact is people wanted them gone. People saw buses as the future, street cars were a relic of the 1880’s. That honeymoon was short lived. Buses quickly began to be seen as loud and smog belching.

Honestly the real benefit of trolleys is the illusion of advancement. They’re just buses on tracks. No one likes buses, not even those of us who ride the buses like them. Some of it is practical reasons, a lot of it though is 60-70 years of stigma that no amount of hybrid buses is going to get rid of. People generally like trains though and street cars are seen as mini trains, and the physical appearance of them makes people feel as if the city is moving into the future instead of stagnating in the past.

posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on January 14, 2014  2:41pm

People who think light rail has no place in a city the size of New Haven or think trolleys are “quaint” need look no further than Portland, OR to see the benefits of light rail. This is not some pie-in-the-sky dream which has never been properly executed.

posted by: Walt on January 14, 2014  2:55pm


Unless the “E”  line to Fair Haven has beenchanged or the locations of East Rock borders   are changed,  that line also servs East Rock area a bit.

posted by: anonymous on January 14, 2014  3:04pm

Agree with Josh. Many U.S. cities with much lower urban density than New Haven are successfully adding streetcars to their city centers, mostly because they make the bus system work better.

posted by: robn on January 14, 2014  3:15pm


Portland is 145 square miles, has an affluent population of 600,000 people and they paid $100M for their system.

New Haven is 20 square miles, has a (relatively) poor population of 135,000 and doesn’t have a lot of money sitting around.

I’m very skeptical of this. The only decent arguments I’ve heard is that the nostalgia thing matters in terms of usage and also Stephen Harris once pointed out that the inflexibility of the rail system could be seen as a strength if it’s right of way is designed so that its unaffected by traffic jams.

Were we to make such an investment, enlightened self interest should motivate East Rockers to want this for poorer neighborhoods.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on January 14, 2014  3:32pm

$100,000 for a Trolley Feasibility Study, which would likely be more of a comprehensive transportation study, is a great deal for the city. Like robn, though, I am skeptical about the proposed route’s ability to attract enough economic development to pay for itself. That route could be served by a shuttle between the train station, YNHH, and Science Park through Downtown and Yale. The point of a trolley is to place it along a route that is undeveloped, sparsley developed, or capable of handling a large amount of growth ie Whalley, Dixwell, Water/Forbes, or Route 34/Boulevard.

A trolley along Legion Avenue connecting to the Boulevard, YNHH and the Train Station and the associated economic development could probably pay for the infrastructure changes to Route 34 that are needed in order to make it a livable place and viable connector between the Upper Hill, Dwight, and West River instead of the island it currently is and has been growing as (Pfizer, Lot E, Continuum of Care proposal, etc.)

Potential Route 34 Development:

Section showing Streetcar:

posted by: anonymous on January 14, 2014  3:55pm

Robn, add in our adjacent towns to make it an equivalent comparison, and you’ll see that New Haven has as many people, and a lot more money, as Portland does. Compare the equal 145 square mile areas side by side. 

Transit systems and jobs are regional.  That’s why the State & Federal government said they would pay for essentially the entire cost of the study, and then probably most or all of the cost of the improvements to buses/streetcars as well.  Job growth benefits everyone in the state.

This is also why the Board of Alders’ measures like a “job pipeline” will never do anything to impact the unemployment rate in New Haven.  Sadly, economic development & transit improvements, like those that have been neglected by the Board, would have a major impact. 

The citywide unemployment rate is stuck at between 12% and 20%, depending what measure you use, and hasn’t moved an inch in the past five years.  Let’s hope that Nemerson and Harp bring a new approach.

posted by: Nathan on January 14, 2014  4:11pm

One could simply copy and paste everyone’s comments from the last several rounds of NHI articles on this topic, especially one certain advocate who has piggybacked his opinion onto a wide range of unrelated articles.  New Haven needs far better bus service - more reliable, on time, trackable via GPS - than it needs a trolley line.  Even if such improvements are made, they will not address the elephant in the room of the racial and class divisions in the city that work against increased ridership.

Despite the many valid reasons against such a proposal, and few compelling arguments, I won’t be surprised if this somehow passes given the money lying on the table to be doled out.  It is exactly the dynamic that has the governor building a bus line to nowhere that will be used by almost nobody; the grant money was there for the taking and his administration will be long gone before the operating expenses come into light.

posted by: TheMadcap on January 14, 2014  4:21pm


Portland is affluent now because of it’s massive growth in the past 20 years(19%, 21% and 11% in the last 3 census counts when it had spent 1960-1990 like most cities bleeding people out) which was fueled by making Portland somewhere a place where non poor people want to live instead of just going. And for all the complaints about bicycles and trolleys, part of how they did it was…........with bicycles and trolleys.

posted by: citoyen on January 14, 2014  6:42pm

Forget about East Rock, which, as others point out, is both a privileged part of town and already has direct public transportation links to downtown.

I suggest studying the feasibility of a trolley line back and forth along Church Street South between Union Avenue—that is, the train station—and the Green.  (This would be in conjunction with making traffic on Church Street downtown two-way, along with other downtown streets.)  Catch the trolley at the corner of Church and Chapel and get directly to the station, or the reverse: arrive by train and catch the trolley directly to the corner of Church and Chapel—the heart of downtown.

a) There are already plans afoot to try to spur development along Church Street South as New Haven grows in the future, as a way of linking the train station, the hospital, the Hill, and downtown.

b) Establishing public transportation routes is a key way encourage development, by making property attractive to developers.

c) Therefore, establish an important transportation route where you want to spur development.

This would have the added advantage of making downtown New Haven’s relationship to its train station quickly comprehendible (as opposed to confusing) for the first time since the 19th century, when NH’s main train station was located in the vicinity of today’s State Street station.

A dedicated but route could accomplish the same thing, but as TheMadcap says, “the physical appearance of [trolleys] makes people feel as if the city is moving into the future.”  Just what we want on Church Street South.

Improve the bus system as a whole, and the trolley system might not have to be any larger than this one route, which would mean only limited ongoing expenses for it.

At least, do study the feasibility.

posted by: TheMadcap on January 14, 2014  6:45pm

Wait, I should’ve said previously that affluent is relative. It’s not like Portland doesn’t have big areas of poor people. It’s average income is still below that of what the suburbs are, it’s just higher than New Haven’s.

posted by: webblog on January 14, 2014  6:51pm

After two previous failed attempts to institute a streetcar feasibility study, you would think that Nemerson and Fontana would have a more substantive economic development plan to offer to the public and to the BOA.

Nemerson and North Haven’s Fontana, would do well concentrating on the development of business corridors in the community as was promised during the campaign.

The Re-installation of a pre 1940 limited rail-streetcar system is not a priority for a city which continues to develop projects downtown fostering more cars and more parking spaces. 

New Haven does not have the available space for parking on both sides of Chapel St, increased auto traffic, buses and now street cars. That is the epitome of poor urban planning.

City Plan Department staffer Susmitha Attota said 52 percent of respondents said New Haven needs “more inner city passenger services such as light rail, shuttle service, bus, etc.”

Not true, she did not survey me and I know of no one else she surveyed. City plan needs to stop trying to build a conscientious demand where it otherwise does not exist, true vote’s (above) one tenth percent approvals notwithstanding.

posted by: Stylo on January 14, 2014  8:47pm

“alders said the study wasn’t a good use of money and was too focused on downtown.”

The shortsightedness (and, frankly, self-centeredness) of that notion makes me laugh.

What’s good for downtown is good for New Haven. It’s the center of business, commerce, and jobs for the city. A streetcar effectively connects different areas of downtown, as well as the most important hub of transportation in the region - Union Station. It does so in a way that buses/shuttles can’t - more frequent/rapid and without similar traffic issues. It encourages investment and growth from businesses and makes the city feel more 21st century.

The downside? Not seeing it. The other neighborhoods are still connected by bus and won’t lose that privilege. Why spend all that money to connect neighborhoods with low commerce potential to the main streetcar grid? THAT doesn’t make financial sense.

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on January 14, 2014  9:42pm

@robn: I agree, for the most part!

posted by: robn on January 15, 2014  8:20am


Portland has one government and one tax base. New Haven County doesn’t. That’s the big difference.

posted by: yim-a on January 16, 2014  10:10am

Light rail down Whaley, Dixwell and Grand Ave, a la Portland OR, would be helpful, to many, many people.

posted by: Cove'd on January 16, 2014  11:00am

People, at this point, all they’re trying to do is study the feasibility of the darn thing.  And with the state ready to pay 9/10 of the study at that!  PLEASE realize that this would not be solely a transportation venture.  The heart of the whole streetcar ‘trend’ around the USA has been ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT.  At least if it is studied in more detail we can all make a better informed decision about whether or not it is right for New Haven.

posted by: Sally Joughin on January 17, 2014  6:37pm

Portland, Oregon’s public transportation system is so good that after I sold my old car last November, I have so far not replaced it!  I moved to this city in 2009, after 38 years living in New Haven.  I’m sorry to say that I rarely used the buses in New Haven because either I didn’t have confidence in their schedule or couldn’t conveniently travel from one place to the other, since it was always necessary to go down to the Green before heading to a different part of the city.  In Portland I can use my $26-month senior citizen pass on any bus, light rail or streetcar.  I can call a phone number to find out how many minutes until the next arrivals at any stop.  Although many buses do make stops along two central downtown streets, called the “bus mall”, it is not always necessary to go there to transfer, as the city has a complex crisscrossing system and it may be quicker and easier to switch at other points.  There are 4 light-rail train lines and 2 streetcar lines mixed in among the many different bus lines.  A new bridge is now being constructed across the river that runs down the middle of the city; it will be for buses, light rail, streetcar, bikes and pedestrians—no cars allowed!  New Haven could definitely use a streetcar to come into town from any number of areas where lots of people need public transportation to get to their jobs or classes, and also it would be excellent to have it between the train station and downtown, which I always found a huge problem.  Fortunately I was able to bike or walk from my house to downtown New Haven, as I hated to park a car in the downtown area.  I hope Matt Nemerson will take a trip to Portland as part of New Haven’s transportation “study”, and I will take him around the city on all our public vehicles!

posted by: SteveOnAnderson on January 19, 2014  11:12am

I spent a very significant amount of time in Portland while they were putting in the MAX system, and always thought it was amazing (in a good way) that they would allow basically the whole downtown to be torn up for two years while they put in the comprehensive light rail system. This was the exact opposite of Seattle (where I lived), where opposition to light rail due to cost for taxpayers led to a ridiculously limited segment of light rail being installed and only expanded over a very long period of time.

If this is going to happen I believe that the streetcar only makes sense if it is from the beginning dedicated to comprehensively serving residents all across the city, as Portland’s MAX system was designed to do from the outset. It should not be a public subsidy to Yale, simply making it easier for people to get in & out of the medical school campus as quickly and easily as possible. It should be accessible from Fairhaven, East Rock, Newhallville, Dixwell, Westville, Dwight, The Hill, etc..

If New Haven’s going to do this, the city should go all in on it, not simply pursue some fragment that privileged commuters can brag about while actually exacerbating disparities in the city.