Streetcar-Plus Transit Study Gets The OK

Thomas MacMillan PhotoThe third time proved to be the charm as lawmakers voted to accept $760,000 in federal money to study how to improve getting around New Haven.

The vote took place Wednesday night at a City Hall meeting of the Board of Alders.

The alders voted to accept the $760,000 grant to conduct a two-year study of how to improve city transit, from buses to trains to a potential trolley.

The city almost didn’t get the grant. The offer for the grant was to expire Sept. 30. Twice alders turned it down, when opponents charged the former DeStefano administration designed it to focus just on creating a potentially expensive trolley or streetcar primarily to serve downtown and East Rock, ignoring less wealthy areas of the city. The alders (then called “aldermen”) had voted down accepting the federal money and creating a requisite local match for the study once in 2011 and again in 2012. The new Harp Administration redrew the proposal this year to try again working with alders to broaden the scope.

This time, the application for the grant expanded the study’s proposed breadth to the entire city, and proposed outcomes to any form of transportation. It also set up a way for neighborhood people to weigh in during the process.

So when Board of Alders President Jorge Perez asked Wednesday night for further discussion about the motion to accept the grant, not a single alder spoke up.

The motion to move forward with the study and add $90,680 in city money— which, along with $100,000 from the state Department of Transportation (DOT), makes up the 20 percent needed local match — passed unanimously.

The motion included an amendment creating an advisory committee for the study consisting of members of each community management team from across the city. City transit czar Doug Hausladen, who had voted in favor of the study twice previously as an alder, also led efforts to solicit citywide input about transportation before undertaking the study so the proposal would include more than a few select wards.

After the meeting, various alders congratulated Hausladen on the vote’s outcome, including downtown Alder Abby Roth, whose ward has a heavy concentration of public transportation options. Hausladen said it was “heartwarming” to receive unanimous support and confidence from Mayor Toni Harp and the Board of Alders.

The Advisory Amendment

The chair of the alders’ City Services and Environmental Policy Committee, Sal DeCola, read the amendment out loud in the Aldermanic Chambers before the vote.  The amendment stated that “No funds (local, state, or federal) may be used for this purpose until after an advisory committee with members of the community management teams has been established.”

Perez, who led the opposition against the original streetcar study proposal in 2011, said a chief concern in the past about accepting the grant was that the study did not include people across the city throughout the process.

With one volunteer from each of the 12 community management teams, Perez said, the advisory committee will work as a sounding board for the team completing the study. Since they live across the city, the community members will know which streets should not be one-way, for example, and can provide input.

When asked whether he would have voted in favor of accepting the grant had the amendment not been added, Perez said no.

“I wanted [the plan] to have an advisory board that was representative of the entire city,” Perez said. “I wanted to have input from different parts of the city along with the so-called professionals and experts.”

Moving Forward, Mode TBD

New Haveners travel primarily by car, according to a DOT survey conducted last month, with about 43 percent of 236 respondents reporting using an automobile and about 28 percent public transportation. (Click here to read a story about concerns over the local CT Transit bus system, which has become a transportation option of last resort, not choice, in New Haven.)

Hausladen and Perez agreed that the city needs buses that run more frequently or streets with better traffic flow. Hausladen said evaluating ways to improve current transportation methods, and possibly add new ones, would ultimately be both more cost-effective and more environmentally friendly. 

And he said the possibilities for solutions are widely varied.

“The beauty of the study is we don’t have any preconceived solutions,” he said. So while an enhanced bus service is an option, so is bus rapid transit (which operates buses like a metro system, often with separate lanes) and even urban circulators, or streetcars.

Hausladen and Mayor Harp have also called on DOT to equip CT Transit buses with GPS devices so riders can track real-time schedules.


The study will evaluate the current state of transit, as well as each alternative method possible with specific standards developed for each mode. Then the results will be sorted from a high-dollar to low-dollar analysis, presenting the city with a number of different options and cost-benefit analyses for each one.

In addition to considering new systems of transit, the study will look to best connect the existing modes, such as bus lines with train stations and shuttles.

Click here for a look at the advantages and disadvantages of launching a trolley system.

Hausladen emphasized the importance of the study and pointed to Harp’s classification of transit as a human rights issue.

“Jobs are great,” Hausladen said, “but if you can’t get to them, what good are they?”

Perez echoed the necessity for New Haven to invest in strategizing about the city’s methods for movement.

“If you look at cities that are growing, that are prospering,” Perez said, “they are cities that look ahead and plan.”

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posted by: BetweenTwoRocks on August 7, 2014  8:29am

Glad to see this got pushed through, finally. One thing you can say about the Harp administration is that it seems to be building consensus a little better than the DeStefano side did—probably because she seems to connect better with the less affluent wards.

I might’ve missed it, but I didn’t notice any start date and/or duration of the study in the article.

posted by: robn on August 7, 2014  8:33am

I’m skeptical about streetcars because they lack the flexibility of busses. The only argument I’ve heard is that their nostalgia increases ridership.

The bus system could be dramatically improved by simply adding peripheral loops to the antiquated hub-and-spoke system (essentially turning the hub-and-spoke into a radial grid). This would dramatically cut down bus users transit time.

posted by: meta on August 7, 2014  11:03am

Street cars or no, I agree with robn. The bus system should be improved also by adding GPS with a smartphone app (I know it’s supposed to be coming, but at a snail’s pace) and running more frequent, later, and broader weekend service.

posted by: Bradley on August 7, 2014  11:29am

One potential benefit of streetcars is that permanence of the tracks can encourage developers to build projects that take advantage of the system. This clearly happened in Portland, Oregon, although I don’t know that it would happen here with the proposed design.

More fundamentallly, the issue with either streetcars or an expanded bus system is economic. The farebox rarely covers more than 40% of a system’s operating costs and none of its capital costs. Anonymous will probably note (correctly) that cars are also heavily subsidized. But we still need to figure out how to pay for the public transit system we want. Some may propose a gas tax increase. While I would support this, the odds of elected officials at the state or federal level agreeing to do so fall in the slim to none category.

posted by: LookOut on August 7, 2014  11:31am

we have the buses - just run that more efficiently and on time to places that people want to go.  The streetcar idea is interesting but in all cases that it has been tried, it spends huge $$$ and generates only limited ridership.  Not what we need.

posted by: Esbey on August 7, 2014  12:16pm

Robn’s point about the flexibility of buses over streetcars is especially strong if the streetcar rides in mixed traffic, without its own dedicated lane.  A bus can pull around a double-parked car, but a streetcar is stuck on its tracks behind the obstruction. In practice, Robn’s point is very important and in many ways the mixed-traffic streetcar is the worst of all possible worlds. 

The frustration is that middle-class folks and tourists are very fond of streetcars and will ride them, whereas they associate buses with poverty, drunk patrons and the like.  With private cars, people care a lot about “style” and will pay many thousands of dollars extra to get a car of a particular style and status (even if it is clearly less practical.)  Cities are doing somewhat the same thing with mixed-traffic streetcars—they are objectively worse but they make people happy and so more folks ride them and (perhaps, maybe not) they attract development along the route. 

The better solution would be to make buses “more cool” for a wider range of riders.  Higher speed, fixed schedules (e.g. even 15 minutes through the day), traffic-light priority, GPS tracking, better signage, no lawyer-ads spray painted on the windows?

posted by: anonymous on August 7, 2014  12:16pm

LookOut, my impression is that newly-opened light rail and streetcar systems throughout the US far exceed their ridership projections. 

They also may be the only way to make our overall bus transportation system more sustainable in the long term.  When you improve circulation downtown, and attract additional passengers, you can make the bus system more efficient throughout the entire city. 

Think about cities with good bus systems - they also all have excellent rail systems, or are building them (e.g., the 15-mile light rail line extending from Downtown Los Angeles to Downtown Santa Monica, opening next year).

How about moving passengers from the “Yale Shuttle” and on to a new streetcar and bus system that provides high quality service to all neighborhoods in our city?

posted by: middle on August 7, 2014  12:51pm


FYI: busses is the plural of “buss” which means “kiss”
buses is the plural of bus, that thing that people ride in

“Busses” do have more flexibility than streetcars but probably not the kind we need for transportation…

posted by: DingDong on August 7, 2014  1:07pm

I think Chris Murphy recently supported a gas tax increase—-which is why he is becoming one of my favorite politicians: someone really willing to do the mature, responsible thing, even if’s not going to win a ton of votes or get his name in the headlines.

posted by: ILivehere on August 7, 2014  2:22pm

No one affluent would get on a bus. The street cars would not have to be subsidized because they would be for people who have plenty of money but frankly find the bus gross.

posted by: accountability on August 7, 2014  2:55pm

Congratulations to Mayor Harp and the leadership of the Board.

This action sets a solid example of leadership through consensus and listening. She’s turned what was a profoundly flawed and deeply divisive proposal into a project that can help lay the foundation for stronger transportation infrastructure in the city.

Now the study has to get done, and done right, but this is long overdue.

posted by: Noteworthy on August 7, 2014  2:56pm

Re-Packaging a Bad Idea Notes:

1. Putting a pig farm on the town green but calling it a farmer’s market, does not make the concept any less noxious.

2. The goal is trolleys - broadening it and getting always useless and ignored public input whitewashes the real goal.

3. Does anybody believe that if there is an available job, an employee will not find a way to get to it? Suggesting otherwise is really stretching the truth. Deluxe transporation is the new human right? And so is $500,000 HANH apartments minus bidets. 

4. The cost of the study is an engineer’s xxx dream - $1 million of taxpayer money - for a study. That’s what - 5,000 hours? And maybe they’ll write the report from the beaches of Bora Bora.

5. New Haven is broke and so is the state. Aside from wasting $190K of our direct tax money - the outcome of this million dollar boondoggle will be tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in more expense and debt that neither has the real, un-gimmicked ability to pay.

Congratulations - this is a testament that no bad idea ever dies. It’s just reincarnated and elevated into a human right. What’s next? A mall on I-95 after burying it with our own Big Dig?

posted by: meta on August 7, 2014  4:07pm

@ ILivehere: I live here too and am what might be considered “affluent”. I ride the bus pretty regularly when I can’t ride my bicycle or scooter. The buses are not gross, but people might think that because of the ignorant stereotypes that are assigned to the people of lesser means or of color that ride them most frequently.

In more advanced, cultured, and liberal societies, mass transit is heavily subsidized and actually preferred among the most affluent because it is convenient, cheap, and reliable. It also doesn’t carry the stigma that mass transit does here- maybe because the car-centric culture has been hammered into the American psyche since GM bought up and destroyed the streetcars.

posted by: anonymous on August 7, 2014  4:13pm

Noteworthy: A lot of people actually rely on the bus. Many are too young, too disabled, too poor, or too old to drive. Either you don’t understand that transit investments are critical (just like roads and bridges), or your contempt for a huge cross-section of our population, possibly to include you some day, is showing.

posted by: Noteworthy on August 7, 2014  5:35pm

Anonymous Notes:

1. You misinterpret what I said - we have public transportation. It’s pretty good. If it needs to be improved, ask the riders what they want. Then deliver it. We don’t need to spend a million dollars on a study to tell us to run the buses more often or on more routes.

2. Your either/or proposition is un-noteworthy and a false choice - I have no contempt for anyone except politicians who embrace every shift of win, every wift of a new idea without fully, clearly, and properly funding what they have already bitten off in terms of budget for pensions, health, debt and current transportation needs. The idea that there is an endless pool of money and taxpayers you can just kick and get more money out of them in the name of the “new human rights” is a crock and it’s irresponsible.

3. It’s time to quit doing things just because the feds throw a bunch of money at something.

posted by: anonymous on August 7, 2014  8:45pm

Noteworthy: So, you are saying that even though every other major city in the world of New Haven’s size spends millions of dollars in federal money per year to plan for and design the layout of improved transportation systems (and then build them, in most cases), what New Haven needs is somehow different?

posted by: robn on August 7, 2014  9:14pm

A million bucks is a lot of money and the city better have an airtight list of deliverables including hard data sets and other information that’s actionable (meaning deploy able by our planners and generally scalable and doable by an EPC contractor.)

posted by: Nathan on August 8, 2014  12:30am

While long term analysis and planning are important, $760,000 would have purchased a great deal of GPS units and monitoring systems for existing buses. It is a shame the federal funding will not be used for such obvious and immediate improvement in bus service.

posted by: anonymous on August 8, 2014  9:02am

Robn: The State/Feds put $500M+ into a busway for a stagnant city just north of us. What makes you think they wouldn’t put up half that to invest in transit in a growing city that actually has the potential to provide more jobs to CT residents?

posted by: Noteworthy on August 8, 2014  3:29pm


A lot of state money went into the Magic Busway. It costs $1,000 per inch to build. Just because Malloy/State DOT and the Feds were stupid once, doesn’t mean they’ll be stupid again. Get real…this is the crowd that can barely solve the VA crisis; lose emails at the ACA and the IRS and despite years of having pending energy legislation - still can’t pass an energy policy out of Congress. Then again…

We do get a congresswoman who proposes to tax soda though.

Who exactly do you think funds the feds anyway?

posted by: Bob Frew on August 8, 2014  4:40pm

another option is to electrify new buses with overhead cables. They can operate like regular buses with out polluting the air. A much better idea