Streetcar proposal sparks debate between city, experts

The New Haven trolley, which city officials may now revive, was an idelible part of the Yale College experience until 1948.
The New Haven trolley, which city officials may now revive, was an idelible part of the Yale College experience until 1948. Photo by Jacob Anbinder.

City officials unveiled plans last week for a streetcar that they say will boost the local economy — a claim that doesn’t have some urban planning experts on board.

City Hall transportation officials held a public meeting at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School last Thursday to detail the city’s plans to reintroduce a tram after 62 years. Before a crowd of roughly 25 New Haven residents, city officials and representatives of URS, a private consulting firm that performed cost-benefit analysis and preliminary planning for the project, said a streetcar would provide convenient access to Science Hill and the Union Avenue train station from downtown.

Michael Piscitelli, the city’s director of transportation, traffic, and parking, said the streetcar may “exponentially” expand commerce in areas near its line, which would run from Union Station onto Science Hill via Church Street, turning around near Bishop Street and following Temple Street back to the station. But urban planning experts in cities that have already installed streetcars said in interviews over the weekend that it is unclear whether streetcars improved their cities’ economies. And residents who attended the meeting had mixed opinions on the plan.

At the meeting, three New Haven residents raised concerns over the route, which follows a path already well served by buses.

“What advantage will the streetcar have over the current bus system?” said Elihu Rubin ’99, a professor at the School of Architecture. “We should take time to imagine … some of the potential trips people might actually take.”

City officials emphasized that the streetcar project, including the route, is still in its early planning stages. City Hall officials have not yet addressed the issue of funding in depth, but Piscitelli said they would seek to win financial backing from the Federal Transit Administration, a government agency under the U.S. Department of Transportation that provides funding to public transit projects across the nation.

At the meeting, Piscitelli drew parallels between New Haven and cities that already have streetcars, such as Seattle. For instance, Piscitelli said Whole Foods recently opened a branch in Seattle along the streetcar line, adding that New Haven could have a grocery store come to the downtown area, which currently lacks one.

But the urban experts were hesitant to attribute the improvement to the streetcars. Christopher Bitter, a professor of urban design and planning at the University of Washington, said the Seattle streetcar was “a part of the package, but it was not the driving force that opened that area up for development.”

Anthony Rufolo, a professor of urban studies at Portland State University, said a similar story has played out in his city.

“A lot of the development that was occurring [in Portland] would have occurred with or without the streetcar,” he said.

Nonetheless, the proposal found favor with over half a dozen meeting attendees.

“People will realize that this is a major municipal investment, that New Haven is really doing things,” said John Good ’10 FES ’11, who is not affiliated with the project. Frank Panzarella, a carpenter who has lived in the city for more than two decades, called the streetcar “a way to bring neighborhoods together.”

But Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark has yet to decide whether she supports the project.

“Once you get all those rails in, you’re stuck,” she said.

The New Haven scrapped its streetcar system in 1948 because of low ridership.


  • rammedearth

    To the editor:

    Serendipitously, just last Saturday, I attended a forum on the future (or demise?) of the Princeton Jct-Princeton “Dink,” which may disappear as a train and be revived as Bus Rapid Transit. Princeton University, like Harvard or Yale, an institution that knows how to play hard ball, expects to move the present Princeton Station farther south to accommodate a new arts complex. Princeton’s ability to have the station moved south once before from the foot of the Blair Arch steps does not make me particularly sanguine about the success of the indigenous of Princeton to stop it from happening again, but the pro-Dink forces was able to produce some compelling data concerning the disadvantages of the BRT that, if true, might also inform the debate in New Haven, which is, I grant, a much different place and which is considering a streetcar line rather than buses. As usual, money is the root of all the objections.

    One of the other contributors to the forum spoke about looking beyond the very narrow constraints of train, light rail, trolley/streetcar, trolley bus, bus, personal transport to the wider developmental issues. Although a proponent of trolleys, he focused on the development issue and injected a note of caution. Having lived in Japan, a country that has some streetcar systems, I would strongly recommend that any such system must have a dedicated right of way. Once autos get in the trolley lanes, New Haven could forget the benefits supporters would hope to obtain from any form of electrically powered, railed system. Of course, the same is true for BRT or even normal buses. If a city wants such systems to supplant the pernicious auto, the question of dedicated right of ways comes to the fore, I truly believe. Nostalgia, of the sort Vincent Scully evokes for the Yale Bowl trolleys, remains just that, as I suspect Mr Scully would acknowledge, without significant curbs on the domination of local streets by internal combustion, private transportation.


    Guy Butterworth ’61