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A Road To Recovery: Let's Fast-Track Trams

By WILLIAM R. ELLIS

December 14, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama promises mammoth infrastructure works and soon. We must now decide how to spend the money. Projects should be innovative as well as responsible. The goals should be job creation and environmentally sound growth.

Why not trolleys?

Modern trams would spur jobs in town centers and get cars off the roads. If we have the chance to bring back streetcars across the state, we should do so.

The electric streetcar originated in the 1880s (as did the electric automobile). The disappearance of trolleys, concurrent with the rise of cars, is well-known, but this was not a global phenomenon. The streetcar is not an inferior technology for transport; it fell out of widespread use because of business maneuvers. Trolleys were subsumed by business interests aligned with the auto industry. The modern streetcar is no more passe than the Chevy Volt, with which it shares the modern goal of greener transportation.

Streetcars, known here 90 years ago as "an inter-urban electric rail network," can function alongside cars. Modern tram systems are on the increase in America and around the world. While emergent economies from Spain to Singapore invest in mass transit, the densely populated Northeast gives rails light or heavy short shrift. California, birthplace of car culture, voted in 2008 for high-speed rail. Connecticut, it's time for a change.

In order to remain economically competitive through the recession and beyond, we must with gravest urgency pursue infrastructure programs that not only fix roads that have passed the point of diminished returns, but shift our priority to transit.

We need transit that increases property values, sparks investment and reorders development patterns around fixed routes, while conserving precious land. We need an option that supports entrepreneurial and innovative urban centers. A modern trolley system does all of the above.

Ideally, the new cars would function as in-city trolleys that could also travel between towns, mimicking light rail vehicles. Constructed right into existing roadbeds for $9 million to $14 million a mile, modern trolley systems are no more difficult to install than ripping up a layer of pavement, laying down the metal rails and repaving.

Compare this to the expense and havoc of lost time, decreased property values, demolition and even lost lives caused by toll-free highway construction projects that can last 20 years or more. For instance, a project slated in Waterbury for the Route 8 and 84 interchange is expected to take until the 2030s and cost nearly $3 billion.

What will be gained at the end of this wrenching process? To what innovative economic benefit to Connecticut? Installing hundreds of miles of streetcars would be much cheaper and faster, and would revolutionize many neighborhoods and communities.

The new system should also decrease travel times. What rail transit we have is mostly keeping pace with 19th-century train schedules ( yet ridership is still increasing).

All over the world, travel times on rail have decreased seemingly exponentially. The technology did not stand still; our region did. The period of $3 to $4 gas reminded everyone how energy-efficient mass transit can compete for consumers on cost, but we must forcefully reorient our thinking to make alternative transit also compete and surpass cars on the basis of time and convenience. Gas prices nudged many people to transit; trains that can outpace cars will draw many more riders.

Connecticut must make infrastructure spending choices that will have the broadest positive impact. An "inter-urban electric railway" would bring us back to the future.

William Ellis is a graduate student in regional planning at Cornell University.

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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