Monday, June 30, 2008

Tom Barrett's Trolley

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett has championed the building of a trolley line to encircle the city's downtown area. The proposed trolley is to be run on rail tracks that will need to be newly installed in the city streets at huge expense and a tremendous inconvenience to motor vehicle traffic.

This new idea to install an old mode of transportation has been studied repeatedly with our tax dollars. But a better gage of it's viability can be determined from previous market research. Real life market research.

Although there is a nostalgic feel to running mass transit on rails, the historic reality is something else. The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company (the predecessor to WE Energies) ran Milwaukee area commuter rail lines starting in 1896, expanding their service area by acquiring competing lines. But following World War I (within 25 years of the company's founding), ridership began its decline. That declining ridership continued until the last streetcar line was finally abandoned in 1958 (TM had divested their rail operation in 1952, after many years of trying to unload this money losing enterprise).

But this is more than a taxpayer funded look back in time. The romanticized nostalgia that Barrett envisions does not match the reality of trolley service. With the introduction of rubber tired rail-less streetcars (i.e., electric buses) starting in the 1930's, there was an outcry to get rid of railed trolleys.
As early as 1934, TM's managers were fielding citizens' requests to replace "the present cumbersome and noisy street cars" with trackless trolleys. As the requests piled up, the electric streetcar, long described as "the sturdy backbone of the transit system," became an endangered species , a situation with disastrous financial implications. Rail & Wire published an upper-case lament:

The public, after being carried back and forth by electric railway cars for half a century, is turning its back on the street railway car and is demanding rubber-tired transportation equipment. Owners of property along the street railway lines join the car riders in demanding this replacement by rubber-tired service, LONG BEFORE THE USEFUL LIFE OF RAILS, TROLLEYS AND RAIL CARS HAS BEEN USED UP.

- Path of a Pioneer by John Gurda
And ...
In 1948, when trackless trolley service came to North Third Street, Rail & Wire praised the demise of the "outmoded" streetcars that "caused passengers and motorists delays and annoyance." Roy Pinkley, head of the transit system since 1925 described the steel-wheeled car as an anachronism. "It has long been demonstrated," he wrote in 1952, "that street cars do not belong in modern traffic."

- Gurda
Sixty years later and the light rail crowd ignores this history.

File this under: KRM - Guilt by Association.

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