Traffic woes? City tries a trolley

Half a century ago, sports fans going to the Yale Bowl from central campus could hitch a ride on a trolley. Starting next year, they may have that option again, when trolleys will re-appear on the streets of New Haven after a 53-year hiatus.

Beginning early in 2002, electric turn-of-the-century trolley replicas will connect the Broadway and Chapel Street shopping districts in an attempt to ease traffic and parking congestion downtown. The trolleys, which will run every six minutes, will cost 50 cents a ride.

City transportation officials and local developers said the trolleys will help decrease pollution and boost business.

“We want to be able to move people in a rapid manner and get as many vehicles off the street,” said Lee Grannis, a coordinator with the Greater New Haven Clean Cities Coalition. “This expands the range people can go for lunch and benefits the downtown merchants.”

Initially, the trackless trolleys will run on business days for three hours in both the morning and evening and another two hours during lunchtime, said Andrea Comer, the mayor’s spokesperson.

The last New Haven rail trolley ran in 1949. City officials considered returning trolley tracks to New Haven but opted for the more flexible and cheaper rubber tire vehicles.

The proposed route runs from Crown Street to York Street to Broadway. The vehicles will then return to the New Haven Green via Elm Street and Orange Street before ending on College Street via Chapel. They will start by making five stops, with more to be added later.

Private institutions like Yale may also use the vehicles for special events like games at the Yale Bowl.

The rebirth of the downtown trolley originated with the Long Wharf Mall proposal, said Brian McGrath, New Haven director of traffic and parking. When the mall bid collapsed, the Clean Cities Coalition suggested replacing the developers’ trolley money with federal funds allocated specifically for non-petroleum vehicles.

“This was the perfect opportunity to go after some federal money to put non-polluting vehicles on the road,” Grannis said.

The project costs total $1.5 million, including $240,000 per trolley and the installation of overhead electric chargers.

New Haven will contribute $200,000 to the project, and state and federal grants will cover the rest.

Previous downtown shuttles did not enjoy tremendous success because they lacked federal funding and could not break even, McGrath said.

The Yale Co-op, a book- and department store which closed last year, ran a complimentary shuttle from Broadway to the Chapel Square Mall in the late 1990s. And in the 1970s, the New Haven Chamber of Commerce funded the Grasshopper Shuttle. Low ridership ended both services.

But McGrath said the frequency of trolleys is the key to their survival.

“Downtown, you can walk anywhere in 15 minutes,” McGrath said. “If you have to wait 15 minutes for the shuttle, you’re not going to ride it.”

McGrath said the trolleys will likely run every six minutes, and the city expects to break even with 50-cent fares and the federal subsidies, Comer said.

Grannis said the city will not know for at least six months whether the electric trolleys are cheaper than buses.

“The drivers will also take less sick days because they’re not sucking in all those fumes,” he added.

California-based Ebus will manufacture the trolleys. Similar models currently operate in Anaheim, Calif., and Santa Barbara, Calif.

Ebus’ air-conditioned units move up to 45 miles per hour, offer wheelchair access and hold 27 people. They travel approximately 100 miles between charges.

McGrath said the city might attempt to merge the trolley system with Yale’s transit service.

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