Streetcar Campaign Revs Back Up

Allan Appel PhotoNew Haven should take a second look at developing running streetcars from and to Union Station, in the view of one visiting transportation expert.

That expert, Norman Garrick, made the pitch at a spirited meeting of the New Haven Urban Design League that drew 50 people to the community room of the New Haven Free Public Library last Thursday evening.

Streetcars are “the perfect urban vehicle” to provide some speed and perfect access, said Garrick, the founding director of UConn’s Center for Transportation and Urban Planning.

Streetcars also have a record of stimulating economic development along their routes, he said.

The meeting occurred as city officials are making a second attempt to gain approval from the Board of Aldermen to accept federal funding for the next stage of a feasibility study for the return to town of a streetcar system.

The “starter” system the city has proposed would run in a three-mile loop beginning at Union Station and then travel up Church Street/ Whitney Avenue to about Grove or Edwards Street. Then in a gesture to link the train with the medical district and downtown, it would descend back down Temple, with a jog down Church Street South and to Union Station.

In all there would be 12 stops, with a cost, if built, at between $20 and $30 million. Click here for details and the economic benefits it is advertised to bring.

In October the Board of Aldermen voted 16 to 6 against spending approximately $200,000 to match $800,000 in already approved money from the Federal Transit Administration. The city can’t access the $800,000 without ponying up the match. (Click here for that story.)

At that meeting last fall, Hill Alderman—and now board President— Jorge Perez argued that in tough economic times $200,000 is too much to throw at a continuing study for trolleys.

A month later city Economic Development Director Kelly Murphy resubmitted the request for approval with a new twist. It adds a clause that the $200,000 match will be sought from funds provided either through the state or regional transportation sources.

The board “lost its direction” in comparing the value of streetcars to after-school programs for kids, argued Urban Design League President Anstress Farwell. “It’s like apples and oranges.”

Farwell said she hopes the library meeting will help begin a more vigorous conversation about the streetcar and related transportation issues. She said she wanted the discussion prompted by Garrick’s lecture to provide tools for aldermen and the public to see transportation’s larger role in the city’s life and economic future.

Which is why she began Thursday’s proceedings by declaring, “The biggest barrier to employment is transportation.”

“Maybe the city needs to do a better job of explaining the benefits [of the starter loop] to the entire New Haven community,” agreed City Office of Sustainability Director Christine Eppstein-Tang. She said the plan would benefit all wards, not just those the tracks pass through. Critics had argued that the plan unfairly focused on East Rock and Yale/downtown commuters. Some suggested sending the inaugural line either up Whalley into Dixwell and then Westville or out Grand Avenue towards Fair Haven.

Deputy Economic Development Director Tony Bialecki, who was also in attendance Thursday night, said that the initial grants for the streetcar system are premised on the density a downtown route offers.

“Like all these things, it’ s incremental,” he said. In future phases of the streetcar system, he said, “it’s a no-brainer to go from Fair Haven Heights to Westville, but it’s not part of the initial plan.”

The second objection is that a proposed maintenance facility or trolley “barn” would occupy what is now a triangular parking lot on Church Street South. “Would you want a trolley barn in your backyard?” Farwell asked.

The details of the plan did not specifically come up Thursday night in Garrick’s wide-ranging talk, which was called “Debunking Transportation Myths and Sacred Cows.” But many attendees echoed his view that a streetcar system would help the city as part of a larger transit transformation. That includes Downtown Crossing project, the re-imagining of Union Station and the rebuilding of the Church Street South projects, among others.


Paulette Cohen of the Urban Design League board asked Garrick why streetcars would seed development and buses would not. One of the arguments the city must make to federal funders is that streetcars can accomplish goals that an extended bus network cannot.

Garrick did not have a definite answer except to suggest that people simply respond differently to streetcars. He called it a bit of a mystery.

It wasn’t a mystery to New Haven-based civil engineer Sam Goater. “Buses just aren’t sexy,” he offered.

The city doesn’t adequately coordinate the transit systems it already has, noted audience member Lynne Shapiro (pictured). So is it ready to add streetcars to the mix?

Shapiro said she’s been taking buses in New Haven for 20 years. She noted that the Sunday 4:34 p.m. train from Grand Central arrives at 6:21. That’s precisely one minute after the J bus to Whitney Avenue, which she’d like to get on, has already rumbled off.

If Farwell hoped many of the new class of aldermen would be in attendance to hear the pitch, that was not the case. The only alderman present was Hill South’s Dolores Colon.

“Why not run it [the starter streetcar] down the Route 34 Connector? That’s where the [economic] development will be,” she said after the meeting.

Colon also expressed hesitation about the repair barn location, which is in her ward. “I want to see what the barn is. Does it bring pollution? I have many seniors in Tower One/Tower East who are on oxygen. Church Street South is [already] surrounded by all these fumes. I need to get more information and see their final plans.”

Garrick said his “quick take” on the advisability of the downtown starter route is that the city should go with it. His view is that of all the projects the city is juggling, revitalizing Union Station by overcoming its isolation is the most important, because it is the hub of the transportation wheel.

The concerns expressed “shouldn’t be reason to turn down the money. Anything to get streetcars going is a good idea,” he said.

Photo courtesy of New Haven Urban Design League

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posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 6, 2012  12:27pm

You don’t need a street car waste of time.All you need is 24hr transit run system.

posted by: anon on February 6, 2012  12:35pm

Farwell is correct that transportation is the key barrier to employment.  It is also the key civil rights issue of the 21st century because access to mobility is startlingly unequal.

Instead of working on a jobs pipeline that will have little meaningful impact, or on school reform that will have literally zero impact as urban districts see growing unemployment rates, the Board of Aldermen and the Governor should be focusing on transportation reform.  (Unfortunately, Malloy is going the wrong direction, spending hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to subsidize more jobs in the suburban sprawl, like Jackson Labs)

Buses in New Haven are great - whoever said they aren’t sexy is wrong.  The key benefit of a streetcar that runs every 10 minutes is that it makes the buses run more efficiently.  Essentially it provides a much better circulation system for transit users.  When buses reach the streetcar line, people can transfer to any other line more easily than they can using the existing bus circulation. Tang is right that the benefits need to be communicated better.

posted by: yz on February 6, 2012  1:09pm

If Mr. Garrick’s understanding of the positive impact of streetcars is only that “it’s a bit of a mystery,” then he does not seem like much of a transportation expert to me. Before spending $20-30 million dollars on a system and committing to million dollar annual operating costs, the city had better be able to explain how exactly the existence of a streetcar system that moves no faster than existing buses or automobiles will attract more than 20-30 million dollars worth of investment to New Haven. Pointing to the results of previous cities is irrelevant. There may be many confounding factors at play, and those cities are not New Haven. The city needs to show how the calculus of investors will change in New Haven with the construction of a streetcar system. Otherwise, why not save that money (at least the portion that the city would be spending) to try to lower taxes?

Furthermore, I hope that downtown can convince the rest of the city why spending millions on a streetcar system will bring investment to other commercial corridors in the city. If streetcars are indeed as attractive as some of these people claim, then wouldn’t it make the other parts of the city less attractive? The mere promise that the system will be expanded (spending even more money!) is insufficient.

posted by: Mr Ray on February 6, 2012  1:45pm

As a New Haven resident and property owner I would have to say, in my opinion, that a trolley line would be a disaster. I am also a part time resident of Edinburgh Scotland where a “tram” system was forced through the city council against the wishes of most residents. Well, it turned out that like most of these things it was just a scam for big business to bleed the local government. After millions and millions of pounds in overruns and years of delay, they have cut the plan back to about a third of it’s original size. The man reason they know give for continuing is that it would cost more to stop than continue. New Haven beware.


posted by: Great idea on February 6, 2012  2:22pm

Great, positive idea and seems like a no brainer for economic development.  Tourists or visitors, i.e. people who SPEND money, would much rather ride in street cars than buses.  It would also allow residents to hop on and hop off.  The trolleys deserves a trial run in downtown New Haven, and, if successful, could be expanded to other parts of the city.  According to the article, the $200,000 necessary to get the $800,000 could also be funded (see below) so why is there a problem?

” Economic Development Director Kelly Murphy resubmitted the request for approval with a new twist. It adds a clause that the $200,000 match will be sought from funds provided either through the state or regional transportation sources.”

As a resident of New Haven, just want to state, I am all for the trolleys!

posted by: AndersonScooper on February 6, 2012  2:34pm

The Yale Shuttle system works so incredibly well. Why not use it as a model for the rest of New Haven?

(Check out this link to watch the Yale shuttles make their loops, in real-time via GPS:

Why not put the City buses on the same system?

Also, with Yale buying St. Raphael’s, isn’t it time for a Westville Yale shuttle line? Heck, the buses already run from the gym to the Yale Bowl and back.

posted by: nhteaparty on February 6, 2012  2:59pm

Do they have contests to come up with new and creative ways to bilk the NH taxpayers out of more money?

posted by: nfjanette on February 6, 2012  3:20pm

Any and every penny spent would be better directed into continuing improvements to the existing transportation infrastructure.  More parking at the train station, new potential express bus routes to the train station, GPS deployment, and other projects would have far more justifiable benefits than this folly of a trolley project that won’t seem to die.

posted by: Eddie on February 6, 2012  4:21pm

I am a tax payer in the city, and while I am for current project on Route 34 the “Downtown Crossing”, I am not 100% sold on trolleys in town. If the busses we have now aren’t eco-friendly, why wouldn’t the cities urge the state and the Transit Dept. to invest more in natural gas and/or alternate energy source busses and less fossil fuel burning modes of mass transit. Do we need a millon dollar trolley system to do that? Maybe so…

posted by: Wooster Square on February 6, 2012  4:29pm

Can we please put this boondoggle to bed already? Let’s forget this nonsense and get to work building a bus system that actually works. It’s far less expensive than a streetcar and can cover a much wider area. The proposed streetcar will basically be a high priced shuttle between Yale, the Train Station and the Hospital. Great, if you’re a suburban commuter from Guilford, not so great for pretty much anyone else.

The feasibility study was done by a company (URS Corporation) that designs Streetcars. Is it surprising that they’re pushing this very expensive trolley system as a great idea when they stand to land a fat contract if New Haven goes ahead with this project?

This is a city that can’t and won’t even take ownership over its own bus system. Why on earth would we push ahead with an even more expensive streetcar system? Let’s see if we can do the basics (running a halfway decent bus system), before we go dropping seven million dollars per mile on a system that the City has absolutely no experience operating or maintaining.

Who’s going to pay for the operation of this streetcar once it’s built? Federal funds don’t typically cover the operation of transit systems and there isn’t a single major transit system in the country that operates without taxpayer subsides.

posted by: Noteworthy on February 6, 2012  4:32pm

The city doesn’t have two nickles, let alone $200K for this silly idea. If this is such an economic driver - where exactly in a densely developed corridor would all this economic activity take place and how would that serve the under-and unemployed today?

I’m not impressed with the UCONN just build it and they will come guru either. I have not read of concrete benefits - just dreams that what worked in a totally different environment will be replicated here. I don’t buy it. Can it. Hope is not a strategy for economic development and neither is throwing it against the wall.

posted by: Paulette Cohen on February 6, 2012  4:32pm

There is no mystery about the fact that streetcars do promote jobs and development.  The mystery is about “why” they are an effective tool to do this in ways that buses are not.  The most frequently heard explanation is that the investment and planning required for a city to lay down streetcar tracks give developers confidence that the city is serious about promoting development and good transportation in the neighborhood that surrounds the route.

At Thursday night’s public meeting Professor Garrick suggested yet another reason why streetcars promote development—a more human reason.  People seem to connect to streetcars.  They want to ride them; they enjoy riding them.  Streetcars seem to evoke a positive emotional response from their passengers.  Buses, though utilitarian, just don’t seem to evoke such feelings.

Professor Garrick’s evocative description of riding streetcars all over Zurich (where he is currently doing sabbatical work) emphasized two important features of a successful streetcar network:  frequency and citywide interconnectivity. These features are not unrelated.  If a streetcar route is planned to only bring commuters in and out of town from the train station it is unlikely that there will be enough ridership throughout the day support the frequency a successful system requires.  Such a system would also be unlikely to seed development beyond a limited downtown area.

The Train Station/Downtown/Hospital streetcar route in New Haven would make an excellent hub of a streetcar system whose spokes would extend throughout all the City’s neighborhoods.  Any feasibility study needs to focus as much on the spokes as it does on the hub.  Even before the study is begun the City should open up a public process to help the City develop a vision and a blueprint for a new citywide streetcar system.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on February 6, 2012  6:51pm

It might be worth it to put in $200,000 for a thorough study that will give the city valuable information that can be used for a variety of future projects like parking and circulation improvements, even if we don’t end up putting in a streetcar line. I’d also rather see investment in a GPS tracking system at CT Transit bus stops, bike lanes, and better comprehensive circulation and parking strategies then in a streetcar. Does anyone know if there are federal grants for those things that the city could apply for? Is there a smart way we can go about lobbying for those types of programs to promote better transportation systems instead of streetcar projects?
As for the existing plan, I wonder if it’d be possible to move the streetcar to South Orange Street and include the construction of a street that bridges/intersects with the Downtown Crossing project’s reconfiguration of the highway. That would keep Church Street South as a residential street (which is good) and would encourage commercial development on South Orange Street, which leads directly to Union Station.

posted by: thomas on February 6, 2012  9:00pm

If they electrified the rail from Union Station to State Street Station well you pretty much downtown. With the Yale Shuttle being free why would a large portion of the population pay for something? A city bus loop system would be a heck of a lot more efficient then the current system and a lot less costly. Only the High Speed Rail to Springfield has had more “studies.”

posted by: Edgehood on February 7, 2012  6:19am

Expanding our transportation system is a great idea but putting trolleys on the street is not going to help us that much. I have always hoped that New Haven would consider something like the overhead train in Wuppertal, Germany. It could be installed over existing right of ways and would not interfere with traffic, it could be automated and the infrastructure is much simpler than a regular railroad. Connecting areas like West Campus and downtown Branford with downtown New Haven would have a huge, positive economic impact. Take a look…

posted by: Stephen Harris on February 7, 2012  8:15am

I think we should spend the money on the study. Streetcars are not just a romantic notion they are a very practical way to move people around urban areas because they aren’t victims of traffic jams and extreme weather events (remember last winter?), like busses. Also, they don’t have to have be high tech; simple and well constructed will get the job done. Anyone who has lived in Europe knows the value of streetcars.

The initial route is very visible and practical because it runs through the heart of downtown. Running the streetcar between the med area and train station makes good sense and sets the table for intensive development of that wider area.

posted by: VD on February 7, 2012  8:16am

Some posters here have the mistake impression that the streetcar project itself would be one million ($200,000 from the city only).  That would be the bargain of the century.  No, that million is for a study ONLY.  The actual streetcar project would be MANY millions to actually undertake.

Line in the sand right here.  Alderpeople, please continue to hold on this study.  The city is broke and every dime must be allocated carefully.  Taxes are already sky high (and about to be a killer in East Rock).  The city can’t afford the study and we definitely can’t afford the street car itself.

posted by: East Rock Independent on February 7, 2012  8:59am

While I agree that transportation does add another obstacle to job access for working people, it’s quite a stretch to say it is the “biggest” barrier to employment. What/who is Farwell citing here? From where I sit, there are much bigger and deeper structural problems in the economy and in the education system that have yielded the income divide and jobs/skills “mismatch” that we are facing. If more of our employers committed to training & hiring New Haven residents, those residents would figure out how to get to work through the buses, through families, etc. Does it mean there isn’t room to make the transportation network better? Of course not. But it’s absolutely farcical to pose this as a job creation solution - and it’s particularly cynical given that the primary investment would be along the downtown corridor. If there was a plan to build these into Fair Haven, Westville or Newhallville, great. But we’ve seen too many projects where benefits to the neighborhoods are promised in the long term that never materialize. So at the end of the day, it’s a nice effort, and we should examine lower cost ways (like bus/rapid transit, as others have mentioned) to improve the speed and efficiency of our transportation network.

posted by: anon on February 7, 2012  9:15am

East Rock:
There are countless studies on that subject. Only 25% of the jobs located in New Haven County that would be easily accessible to a New Haven Resident with a car are accessible via a 90 minute mass transit ride. Car access=95% for White families, 80% for Black families nationally; even lower in lower income zones.

GPS: will never happen on CTTransit because CTTransit could never cope with the massively increased ridership that would result.  This is an issue for the State legislators to tackle but first capacity is needed. Mediocre service is their way to keep ridership and cost in check.

posted by: Dominik on February 7, 2012  10:53am

I wish New Haven would have Tram Access like my hometown of Krakow:

They have one of the best Transportation system in the world.

As for CT Transit. That whole system needs to be redone its a failure. How about creating actual Bus Stops with an actual schedule ? What the hell are the time stops? Why does the Bus Stop randomly at each corner? Why can’t we have a ticket booth instead of paying exact change to the driver?

CT Transit officials should go to Europe to see what an actual Bus System looks like.CT Transit is just so hard to ride(Pull a Cord for a stuff like in the 1800s?)

posted by: Morris Cover on February 7, 2012  11:01am

I say if they can get the $200k through the state or region through a govmnt grant, funds or whathaveyou, then good - get the $200k match, get the $800k from the feds and continue to study this.  It seems too soon to kill this thing.  What they need to do to sell this to the public is to really study what the economic implications are.  They need to quantify what the direct and indirect economic benefits are to the city’s residents. 

From what I gather, these streetcars and their infrastructure can create a certain level of permanence that generates increased economic investment along the streetcar route.  But really how does this happen?  The city needs to explain how and why putting in streetcars would spur greater investment in New Haven.  That would seem to me to be the biggest benefit to putting streetcars in. 

Also, the operation benefits of streetcars not getting stuck in traffic with buses and cars needs to be further elaborated.  Garrick spoke about the streetcars in Switzerland being able to approach an intersection and alway getting the right of way ahead of motor vehicles.  Clearly, this would be a convenience benefit to a potential user in central new haven - someone who needs to travel along the route that may or may not have a car, that could get to where they need to go faster than walking, and does not want to get stuck in traffic in a bus or their car.

posted by: Pedro Soto on February 7, 2012  12:23pm

I don’t think this is at all an “either/or” in terms of buses vs. streetcars. I think we should actually be moving in both directions.

It’s a little sad that Yale Students have a more trackable, reliable form of transit than the rest of the city has.  Right now, I can check the status of every Yale shuttle right here-

I also agree that the buses need to have defined stops. Far too often, a bus stops at one block, then lets someone else off another half block away. How does this make any sense?

We should start designing our bus system to more reflect what people like the most about trolley systems (e.g. tickets off the bus, and defined stops and timetables).

Knowing when the next bus is coming via digital signs would be HUGE. You would see large increases in ridership with this alone.

Does anyone know whether CT Transit is pursuing any of this? Is the fact that our transit system is regional a roadblock to this?

We can spend all we want on hybrid and double length bendy buses, but if we were to improve the end-to-end experience, we’d actually start taking cars off the road in large numbers.

posted by: Xurious on February 7, 2012  1:20pm

I don’t know why NHI elected not to publish this early, but I will try to say it again.  Yalies don’t ride the buses because of the class, and perceived safety issues. 

Do you really think you’re going to start seeing Yale students standing at the bust stops with the rest of the public on Chapel and Crown?

Yalies will ride the tram if it is clean and safe.  There is a big perception that the buses are neither, and you’re not going to increase ridership on city buses as long as Yale has their own alternative.