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Bring Back Trolleys, Build Them Here

21ST-CENTURY TRAM State should reconnect with streetcars

Hartford Courant

January 19, 2010

For several good reasons, none having to do with Judy Garland, the renewed interest in trolleys in this country is very encouraging.

Cities such as Memphis, Seattle, San Diego, Portland, Ore., Tacoma, Tampa and Charlotte, along with smaller cities such as Kenosha, Wis., have new (or refurbished) trolleys, aka streetcars or trams, plying their streets. Scores of other cities including Providence, New Haven and Stamford are exploring a return to trolleys, and the idea is being urged on Hartford, once the hub of a 150-mile regional street railway network (the Hartford Division of the Connecticut Co.).

Most commuting in Connecticut is by single-occupant automobile. Trolleys, like larger rail cars, carry many more people using much less fuel, and so reduce carbon emissions and help lessen our risky reliance on foreign oil.

Transit With Flair

Since trolley riders leave their cars at home, city leaders don't have to tear down so many of their buildings for parking lots and can maintain a healthy and vibrant urban density. Not for nothing are the handful of U.S. cities that never gave up their trolleys, such as Boston, New Orleans and San Francisco, among the country's most interesting places. Many have experienced what Judy Garland did when she sang in "Meet Me in St. Louis," "I went to lose a jolly hour on the trolley and lost my heart instead."

Some of that magic seems to jump to cities that bring back trolleys. Memphis' two-mile trolley route is credited with stimulating billions of dollars in new construction.

So Connecticut cities should think seriously about using trolleys. But what about trying for a second bang for the buck and manufacturing them here?

"It's absolutely possible," said Rick Gustafson, executive director of Portland Streetcar Inc., the nonprofit agency that runs Portland's downtown streetcar system. But not easy.

Make Trolleys Here

Manufacture of transit vehicles fell out of favor in the country in the postwar era, for a variety of reasons. The industry never enjoyed the public support afforded to, say, defense or agriculture. Some U.S. efforts to build metro rail systems, notably one by Boeing in the 1970s, failed. We ceded the business to the Europeans and Japanese, who have made it prosper.

As a result, not one of the 1,500 light rail vehicles delivered to U.S. cities from 1994 through 2006 was made in this country. That's about $500 million worth of business. "It's the kind of high-quality technical business that would be perfect for the U.S. to be involved in, and we're not," Mr. Gustafson said.

Portland, however, is trying to change that. Oregon Iron Works, a heavy manufacturing company, has created a subsidiary, United Streetcar, to build trolleys. It is using a model developed in the Czech Republic and using mostly U.S. suppliers (including at least two from Connecticut). The city of Portland, now in the process of doubling the size of its trolley system from four miles to about eight (it also has a light rail system) has ordered six cars from the new firm, the first of which is now in the testing phase. The new cars are 66 feet long, smaller than light rail vehicles, and can work in mixed traffic in a tight urban environment.

Could something like this be done here? If ever, now. Cities are ordering the cars. The Obama administration has signaled support for streetcar development. Manufacturing jobs would be a godsend for the state, especially in its urban areas.

Connecticut is the home of major manufacturers United Technologies, General Electric, General Dynamics and others with the ability to make something like this happen.

Why couldn't Electric Boat beget Electric Train? Could UTC fuel cells power a fleet of 21st-century trams? It would at least be worth a meeting.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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