Aldermen reject streetcar proposal

The Board of Aldermen rejected a Federal Transit Administration grant funding research on a streetcar system.
The Board of Aldermen rejected a Federal Transit Administration grant funding research on a streetcar system. Photo by Wikimedia Commons .

New Haven will not build a streetcar system anytime soon if the Board of Aldermen’s Monday night vote is any indication.

In a 16 to 6 vote, the Board of Aldermen decided not to accept a grant from the Federal Transit Administration which would have funded a study of the feasibility of a streetcar system in New Haven. The $800,000 grant would have required an estimated $200,000 contribution from the city to assess the best possible route to maximize ease of use and economic benefits. The Board considered the project too costly in the uncertain economic climate.

According to Ward 30 Alderman Darnell Goldson and Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 SOM ’10, the majority of the Board decided that the investment required to design and implement a streetcar system would be a misallocation of the city’s limited funds.

“A lot of aldermen didn’t see [the proposed streetcar] affecting their area,” Goldson said. “It would mainly be in the downtown area — it would not affect them in a positive way.”

But City Hall spokesman Adam Joseph said the construction project would have had the potential to become a major asset to the city’s transit system.

“Streetcars in other cities have been major economic catalysts for development,” Joseph said. “The city is facing an economic downturn and now it has two choices — it can plan and grow and prepare for the future, or it can choose not to.”

Since 2008, New Haven has invested $85,000 in an initial study to investigate options for a streetcar route. The result, a proposed three-mile line that would have connected downtown to the medical district, Science Hill and Union Station, was first introduced to the public during a town hall meeting in September 2010. The plan suggested synchronizing streetcar stops with bus routes to enhance flexibility as well as to leave room for route extensions in the future. Its construction would have generated approximately 17,000 construction jobs and 5,000 permanent jobs, according to Jim Travers, the city’s director of transportation, traffic and parking.

“Streetcars have proven benefits to the economic system by laying down a fixed line of transport,” Travers said. “As a developer, you are able to promote your company to a larger group of people if your property that you’re developing on has a fixed transit system.”

In addition to the jobs it would create, the streetcar line would be accessible to 56,000 employees and students in the area as well as 32,000 residents living within a half-mile radius of the line, Travers said.

Ron Filson, a Tulane University professor who has served on the New Orleans planning commission, said the reinstallation of the streetcar system there has already brought about tangible economic development by capitalizing on local markets that develop around streetcar stops.

“We’ve found that having streetcars run by stores actually increases the traffic to them, rather than having cars go by,” he said. “People are more likely to see a store they want to visit and just hop off whenever.”

Despite the economic rewards other cities have reaped from streetcars, the Elm City would still have been required to make a substantial financial commitment to the venture. Charlotte, N.C., which is implementing a similar plan, has just invested $12 million to accompany a $25 million FTA grant.

John Mrzygod, Charlotte’s streetcar project manager, stressed the difficulty of weighing the project’s potential benefits against its cost.

“We determined that a streetcar would be a good idea as long as we would be able to receive federal support,” Mrzygod said. “But we’ve put some rail down, and we’ve noticed that many businesses have opened up within a half-mile of that track already.”

Constructing the proposed New Haven streetcar line would cost $30 million, according to a city estimate released in 2010.

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