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The story of a streetcar named Whalley

Streetcars are making a comeback. (Jinjin Sun/YH)

Streetcars are making a comeback. (Jinjin Sun/YH)

Streetcars are making a comeback. (Jinjin Sun/YH)

New Haven is set to bring back the streetcar. In an effort to enhance sustainable transportation options and to connect various parts of New Haven, the city has entered the preliminary phases in creating a three-mile route that would connect Union Station with the Downtown and Yale-New Haven Medical Hospital districts. It’s been more than 60 years since a streetcar last traversed New Haven streets.

New Haven began its streetcar program in the 1850s as the streetcar succeeded the omnibus. While both vehicles were horse-drawn, the streetcar ran on a steel-railed route that was placed in the middle of the street. In 1882, electric streetcars arrived on the New Haven transit scene, but motor buses soon rendered them obsolete and had replaced them by 1948. But the streetcar is making a comeback in New Haven—and across the country—as cities are rediscovering its economic, social, and environmental benefits of streetcar travel.

Mayor John DeStefano, Jr., in conjunction with the New Haven Department of Transportation, proposed the idea. It has received widespread approval: The non-pollutant streetcar has proven to be a factor in transforming cities economically, connecting suburban neighborhoods to downtown areas, while also relieving heavy traffic. Elihu Rubin, SY ’99, Visiting Assistant Professor of Urbanism, said, “Streetcars can be great for cities. They give shape to districts.” Portland, Ore., for example, has taken in over two billion dollars in economic development since its initiation of a streetcar system. Susmitha Attota, assistant director of comprehensive planning, said, “Developers would be more interested in investing in areas where there are streetcars.”

Streetcars hold a great appeal because they offer comfortable and frequent localized service in a way that doesn’t interfere with other vehicles. The streetcar project will involve a track running alongside the road. Phil Fry, assistant general manager for planning and marketing for Connecticut Transit (CT Transit), noted, “Streetcars are the ‘in’ thing in smaller cities right now.”

The city is working with the URS Corporation, a firm that has successfully supervised and implemented streetcar additions in cities such as Portland and Tampa, Fla. URS and New Haven are preparing to apply to the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for grant money, which would form the bulk of the funding for the project. The grant application process is competitive, and involves a series of proposals and public meetings. The city held one such meeting in mid-September to inform the local community and encourage their involvement. More than 90 people provided information about how they travel in New Haven and suggestions through an online survey.

Because the project is still in the preliminary stages, the city must lay out a sketch of the proposal and determine a draft route. The streetcar route would start at Union Station, traveling up Church St. and Whitney Ave. before it returns to Union Station via Temple St. The tentative stops are Union Station, the Yale-New Haven Medical Center, Science Hill, and Gateway Community College. While most students attending Gateway are commuter students who drive to classes, the city believes that they would use the streetcar for local trips.

The streetcar will attract riders with its convenience and benefits and also dissolve parking spots along its route. According to Jenna Nichols, URS corporation transportation engineer and planner for sustainability, car parking could potentially be affected, but it is too early to know for sure. Nichols added that the streetcar’s effect on cyclists will be seriously considered, especially since Nichols is an instructor for the League of American Cyclists. But clear analysis of how the project would impact car parking, bicyclists, and the local bus services has not yet been undertaken.

The lack of concrete analysis with respect to existing transportation options, however, has led to criticisms of the project. While many are excited about the idea, others worry that it is too pricey. “Investing in streetcars is more expensive than investing in existing modes of transportation,” said Fry. CT Transit and Yale Transportation Options hope to coordinate routes with the streetcar in order to minimize overlap and maximize efficiency. Holly Parker, the director of Yale’s sustainable transportation systems, said, “We’ve been in communication with the city with the planning stages…anything that provides an alternative to driving alone is a good thing.”

Another concern is that the route is redundant, since that the area is accessible via Yale shuttle and local bus service. Rubin worries that the streetcar project runs the risk of becoming a “boutique system” that is flashy but not very useful for the community. Many comments on a The Transport Politic article suggested that extending the route to the State St. Station and moving it closer to Westville would be more effective. But Nichols believes that the proposed route is great for a starter system, especially because it can be easily expanded. She added, “It is necessary to start with an area that will receive a lot of people.”

The city hopes to expand the streetcar development to neighboring areas in the New Haven area such as Whalley Ave. or Grand Ave., and even neighboring towns like Hamden and West Haven. The focus right now, however, is obtaining the federal grant money to start the project. Attota looks forward to the streetcar system eventually realigning the grid south of the Route 34 corridor, as well as reconnecting the area to the Downtown district. Planning for expansion, she said, involves looking at ridership and area density.

Other planning factors include the physical installation of the streetcars. The streetcars run on electricity and require overhead wiring, which in some areas, such as the Green, is impossible to set up. Nichols said that certain sections of the route would probably involve streetcars’ using on-board batteries, a method used most notably in France. Other technical concerns include incline and utilities in the surrounding area. The next stage of planning will focus on reducing flaws in the system with respect to the technical construction of the streetcars. Nichols believes that the streetcar project “is a wonderful [idea] that could put New Haven on the map as a great city of the Northeast.” Though Rubin foresees a long process involving extensive planning, he said, “If the city could get federal money to do something interesting, then go for it.”

The Project Initiation Package should be completed and submitted by November for review by the FTA. If the city receives grant approval, then it would start concrete planning next year.

  • Quinchion

    I think a streetcar would be very smart because the city New Haven don’t have enough city buses,taxi’s and other transits for citizens.Then the buses,taxi’s and the yale shuttles for the yale students would most of the time be full and the people got to wait 10 or 15 minutes for another bus or if they call a taxi it will probably take a little longer. The mayor is doing a great thing for this city. I think the city of New Haven should make more office buildings to create more jobs,Not only for the city of New Haven but for the state of Connecticut as a whole.The city should get the mall back,People should not go out of town just to go shopping,Its just wasting gas,espacially for people that live in towns like Old Saybrook,Rocky Hill and Norwich,People should not have to drive long distances to the the mall.This city got to keep rising,Time to give this city a special name but i would put a streetcar in New Haven for cummuters,adults and kids that goes to work and schools nearby and people that live little ways from Downtown. I think the streetcar should only run in New Haven because why go to other towns where people have their own cars and businesses is super close to their houses,it will be pointless to run a streetcar out of the city.I would run the streetcar to locations downtown then to other locations in the city like Whalley,Dixwell,Legion,Whitney & Winchester Avenue,Even State Street also.Then to sections like Westville,Fair Haven,Brookside and even key places like Southern Connecticut College and Yale Bowl. Then i would run it by Kimberly Avenue/Howard Avenue/Long Wharf then over the bridge back over to union station. This is great advantage for New Haven! Let this happen!