DEAD IN ITS TRACKS - LancasterOnline: Editorials

DEAD IN ITS TRACKS

Or so it appears for now. Without financial backing, the idea of putting trolleys back on city streets is headed nowhere. It’s time to move on.

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Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2010 12:01 am | Updated: 7:22 pm, Wed Sep 11, 2013.

Lancaster's trolley project might have just gone clang.

Nostalgically, we'd say that's a shame. Practically, we'd say that's a good thing.

No one can seem to scrape up the nearly $1 million needed to pay for studies of the proposed 2.6-mile loop around downtown, let alone $14 million or more to lay tracks.

And, as the Sunday News reported last week, City Hall now has asked the private Lancaster Streetcar Co. to move the vintage trolley that's been on display for two years on city-owned land at the corner of West Chestnut and North Prince streets.

It looks like a prophetic move.

That clang isn't a death knell, of course. Supporters of the trolley point to the long and winding road that backers of a minor-league ballpark took before Clipper Magazine Stadium finally opened. Perhaps years from now streetcars again will ferry passengers around town.

For the moment, anyway, we fear the trolley's time has come and gone.

When the idea was first advanced in 2007, we favored studying a trolley system. Now we're having second thoughts.

Traffic congestion in the city has gotten worse - partly because of construction projects, but that's not the only reason. For instance, there's "calming," the ongoing efforts of some city leaders to slow the pace at which vehicles move through town.

It's been effective. You could say that traffic in Lancaster has been "calmed" to a standstill. Adding trolley tracks to the mix would make the situation worse.

We're also not so sure that given the price of gas now, light rail would attract enough riders to make operating the trolleys financially viable.

A century ago, trolley tracks covered Lancaster County - from the city through the country. But by the 1940s, the tracks had been ripped out.

That, in hindsight, was a short-sighted decision. Lancaster County desperately needs more transit options in the suburbs. If the trolleys had stayed, the tracks could have been modernized to become an essential part of the transportation mix. The infrastructure would already be in place, and people would be used to sharing downtown streets with trolleys.

Modern light rail has succeeded in other cities - Pittsburgh, for instance. But in Pittsburgh, the trolleys run on tracks that never were torn up, at least in the southern suburbs, and when streetcars arrive downtown, they travel underground on a subway route.

In Lancaster, trolleys would have to share those increasingly congested streets with cars, trucks, buses and pedestrians. Not to mention the double-parkers and the jaywalkers.

Streetcar backers point to Portland, Ore., where light rail was reinstituted in 2001. But Portland is a lot bigger than Lancaster, and it's a more modern city, while Lancaster's streets are patterned on the grid laid out in the 18th century.

Here's another hitch: There doesn't seem to be much public backing for streetcars, outside of civic leaders and folks like Lancaster Mayor Rick Gray, who says he's still supportive of the trolley project.

Unless those supporters can build a political consensus - not necessarily unanimity but critical mass, anyway - it's probably best not to push trolleys down residents' throats.

Maybe the trolley project still has potential. Maybe the funding snag will be just a bump in the road. Maybe in the future, Lancastrians will come together around light-rail mass transit. Maybe.

Until then, there's no sense beating a dead project. That train left the station a long time ago.

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