Let streetcars roll again

November 23, 2001|By Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind

WASHINGTON - The fine old city of Baltimore (a city we like better than Washington) is now served by three different types of rail transit: the MARC commuter rail system, the Baltimore Metro and light rail.

But there is a fourth variety of rail transit we think also has a role to play in Baltimore's future: streetcars.

Many older Baltimore residents have fond memories of the city's streetcars, which ran until 1963. For you younger folks, streetcars were, for nearly a century, the chief way people traveled in urban areas. Like the light rail line in Howard Street, streetcars run on steel rails and have electric motors, with a wire overhead and a trolley pole on the streetcar to provide the power.

But streetcars are smaller than light rail cars, and while light rail is designed to run fast through the countryside, bringing commuters into town, streetcars amble at a pleasant pace through local streets, carrying people around town rather than into or out of it. Streetcars fit into local streets and neighborhoods, in a pleasant, quiet way different from both light rail and buses.

What could streetcars do for Baltimore?

Under Mayor William Donald Schaefer, Baltimore realized what many urban areas have yet to learn: For the area as a whole to be viable, the downtown must be vibrant. Downtown must be a place where people want to go, locals and out-of-towners alike.

Baltimore's downtown is now a lively, attractive place, from the beautiful federal blocks around Washington Monument and the Walters Art Museum through the Inner Harbor with its aquarium to the city's award-winning Camden Yards baseball stadium and the superb Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum.

There's only one problem: Unless you drive (which is inconvenient at best in city traffic), there is no good way to get around downtown Baltimore. Buses don't work for visitors because they don't know where the bus is going.

This is where the streetcar comes in. Because streetcars run on tracks that are visible, people are comfortable taking a streetcar, even in a city that is new to them. They know where it is going to go - along its track. A simple map of the streetcar line - most probably a loop, at least at first - offers further reassurance. Just as visitors to San Francisco love the cable cars, so visitors to Baltimore would seek out the streetcars. People just like riding in them.

How much would it cost to bring streetcars back to Baltimore? It could be done very cheaply.

The McKinney Avenue streetcar line in Dallas offers a model. The original two-mile line, which opened in 1989, cost $5.5 million, with four rehabilitated antique streetcars. Most of the money came from private sources, as do all of McKinney Avenue's operating costs.

A one-mile extension is being built for $3.5 million. Nearly all the labor force is made up of volunteers.

But McKinney Avenue's streetcars offer real transportation, not just a "ride." The line operates 12 hours a day (longer on weekends), seven days a week. It is now being tied into Dallas' light rail line on each end, making it fully a part of that city's transit system.

If Baltimore decides to go forward with streetcars, it already has a great asset in the excellent Baltimore Streetcar Museum. The volunteers who run the museum know how to operate streetcars and have a wonderful collection of former Baltimore streetcars that could serve as the initial fleet.

The restoration of downtown Baltimore as a vibrant urban center is one of urban America's better success stories. Bringing back Baltimore's streetcars would be icing on the cake. "Ride a mile and smile the while" was a common streetcar slogan in H.L. Mencken's "happy days."

Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind are president and center director, respectively, of the Free Congress Foundation in Washington. They are nationally known experts on public transit.

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