Trolleys unlikely to return to Brooklyn

Money quarrel leads city to withdraw from effort to get U.S. aid

February 14, 2002|By Randy Kennedy | Randy Kennedy,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - A quixotic 20-year effort to return trolleys to the streets of Brooklyn - where they were once so plentiful that the borough named its baseball team the Trolley Dodgers - may be coming to an end.

After weeks of increasingly bitter financial arguments, the city's Department of Transportation has decided that it will no longer support efforts to provide more federal money to the group trying to build the first trolley line to run in Brooklyn since 1956. Without federal help or the intervention of a wealthy trolley lover or two, which is unlikely, the line appears destined to be no more than what it is now: a historical curiosity rumbling a few hundred feet along a deserted stretch of Red Hook waterfront.

Creation of one man

The nonprofit group that has nurtured the trolley idea, the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, is essentially the creation of one man, Bob Diamond, who became a legend among train buffs in 1980 when he unearthed an old railway tunnel, built before the Civil War, beneath the streets of downtown Brooklyn.

Diamond, an electrical engineer, formed his group two years later and began working toward his grand vision of building a trolley line that would stretch from Red Hook, which has no subways, to downtown Brooklyn. Diamond's ideal plan was to have the line terminate in an underground station inside the old brick tunnel, which the city had given him permission to develop as a museum.

The project went well, if slowly, as long as the group relied on private benefactors and built tracks on donated private property along the Red Hook shoreline. But as soon as it began to extend onto city streets and to seek public money, complications began.

By 1999, after volunteers had spent two years digging and laying ties, restoring old trolley cars and erecting old-fashioned, filigreed electric poles, the line had reached the foot of Conover Street, and a federal program for innovative transit programs had awarded the effort more than $300,000, city officials said. The money was to be used to buy materials to extend the line to about three-quarters of a mile, up to an intersection with a city bus stop.

Problems begin

Diamond said recently that problems began when the group was forced to wait nearly a year, until last fall, for the city's permission to start work, even after it had received all the other approvals it needed.

Next, he said, city officials decided that expensive safety equipment that they had not originally thought would be required - like signals and lights to warn pedestrians - would, in fact, have to be installed. Arguments began over who was responsible for paying for the equipment.

Finally, the city and Diamond began to argue over whether Diamond was responsible for putting up some privately raised cash - $98,000, according to the city's calculations - as part of an agreement he had made to get the federal money and some city financial help.

Diamond said he had understood that his group's contribution did not have to be in cash, which it has little of, but could be in sweat equity. His band of volunteers has, since 1995, logged 85,000 hours of work on the project, he said, labor that by his calculations is worth more than $3 million at a fair market rate. (Diamond added that he charged $6,000 on his own credit card over the last several months to rent jackhammers.)

City officials countered that Diamond had agreed to put up cash for the project, and they charge that he is trying to change the rules because the project is costing more than he originally planned. "I wish they were as aggressive about fund-raising as they are about media relations," said Tom Cocola, a spokesman for the Transportation Department.

"I'm devastated," Diamond said. "I can't believe this is happening. A lot of work has been done and a lot of money has been spent for us all to end up just playing choo-choo."

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