Streetcar proposal revisited

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 .

Plans to build a streetcar system in New Haven are not dead yet.

On Nov. 16, more than a month after the Board of Alderman rejected a $1 million study to determine the cost and best route of a proposed streetcar, the city submitted a new streetcar study proposal for consideration. The original proposal, which would have been funded in part by a $760,000 Federal Transportation Authority grant and an $180,000 city match, was rejected on the basis that the city could not afford its contribution. The new proposal delineates an alternative source of funding for the study — the State Department of Transportation (DOT) — and more clearly highlights the benefits that a streetcar would bring to the city, Ward 10 Alderman Justin Elicker FES ’10 GRD ’10 said.

“I am confident that this is a great use of state money, and that this is the exact sort of investment we should be making in a down economy,” city spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton ’04 said. “I’m not sure the first time around we stressed the merits of the proposal — we did not present as clear of an explanation to convince the Board that this was the right way forward.”

The 16-6 vote against the proposal contradicted all indications from aldermen leading up to it, Benton said. The plan passed the city services and environmental policy committee with unanimous support and did not face significant opposition in a public hearing held last September to discuss its merits.

But on the day of the vote, some aldermen raised concerns about the proposal that had never before been mentioned, said Elicker, chair of the city services and environmental policy committee. Aldermen, including Ward 30 Alderman Darnel Goldson and Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez, opposed the plan on the grounds that the city lacked the necessary funds and that other projects should take priority.

“I do not want to see New Haven taxpayer money fund this study when we have adequate public transportation already and so many people are out of jobs,” Goldson said.

Benton said under the first proposal the city’s contribution would have come from the capital fund portion of the budget that borrows money with low interest and pays it back over several years. After the plan was voted down, the city entered into negotiations with the DOT, which the city expects will pay the match so that New Haven will not have to incur debt, she added. Benton said the DOT has not yet guaranteed that it will supply the funds.

Elicker said the state’s assistance will be a “game-changer,” as it will allow the Board to approve the project without having to worry about costs.

In addition to addressing concerns about the study’s costs, the new proposal emphasizes the benefits the city might derive from the arrival of a streetcar system.

Benton and Elicker said part of the reason that the initial proposal failed was because aldermen and members of the community did not understand how a streetcar would positively impact them. In an effort to remedy this, the new draft highlights the success of streetcar lines in several other cities like Portland, Ore., Little Rock, Ark. and Tacoma, Wash. in bringing about increased public transportation use and economic development.

Anstress Farwell, president of the New Haven Urban Design League, said a streetcar system would especially benefit New Haven because over 30 acres of the downtown area remain undeveloped. Laying streetcar rail, Farwell said, signifies a permanent commitment to bringing people to the area, so developers have historically been attracted to districts accessible by streetcar.

“Some of the members I’ve spoken to regret their decision to vote against [the proposal],” Elicker said. “Now that we’re essentially getting it for free, and the educational component has changed, I am optimistic that it will pass.”

Despite the new source of funding, Goldson said he still believes the streetcar to be an unnecessary use of resources.

“If the state is interested in wasting taxpayer money on this proposal, I would not take any energy to fight that,” Goldson said, adding that he would still vote against the proposal on the grounds that New Haven already has a working public transportation system.

The Board rejected the first proposal on Oct. 24.

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