Sunday, March 30, 2008

Trolleys, Transit and "History"

The Salem News has a rare editorial on public transit, "Our view: Or maybe they could ride a broom", in a recent issue.

The News saw, via a postcard, the trolley in Little Rock, Arkansas, home of President Clinton's library.  It's known as the River Rail.  The News is ecstatic:

So why not a trolley that travels up and down Canal Street from the school's Central Campus to Mill Hill at the southern entrance to downtown Salem? Or how about a loop system that would include tracks on Loring Avenue and Lafayette Street? One colleague even suggested that instead of a trolley, the route be served by a monorail.

The fact is that with gas prices continuing to escalate, no idea for getting people around the Witch City — without their having to get in their cars — should be considered far-fetched.

John Goff likes it too:

Thank you very much for your brilliant editorial in March 7 Salem News in which you advocate for resumed trolley service or a trolley shuttle to strengthen ties between Salem State College in South Salem and downtown Salem.

I also asked about the possibilities for a shuttle like this at a recent South Salem Neighborhood Association meeting. Regular trolley service would have the advantage of eliminating the need for students to drive or park and help reduce carbon emissions all while also helping to revitalize the downtown and provide more services for SSC students.

A trolley doing a loop run down Canal and Lafayette streets would make so much sense, especially when you consider that most of South Salem developed in the Victorian era as a street-car suburb of downtown Salem

With due respect to Mr. Goff, I have the deepest cynicism towards "history".  I remember seeing a photo in the Gazette of the trolley tracks on Highland Ave.--the direct predecessor of today's MBTA bus route 450--and saying to myself, "The Federal Street crowd would never support that today, unless Nathaniel Hawthorne rode the trolley, and maybe not even then!"

To my knowledge, there is no private company in Massachusetts outside the MBTA that is running true trolley service (not "tourist trolley" buses).  The National Park Service runs a trolley service in Lowell on the weekends.  (I have taken the tour and rode that trolley and had a fine time.)   Lowell is studying the feasibility of expanding their system for commuters.

Otherwise, the obstacles to a trolley service in Salem seem numerous and all but insurmountable.  The neighbors would complain.  The most obvious, and prettiest, street for a trolley--Lafayette St.--is also a part of the infamous state road 114 (the North Shore's true Number of the Beast!)  I'd be waiting for the first headline of trolley service interrupted when some dump truck brings down the overhead wire.

But it won't even get that far.  Who has the money?  The MBTA certainly doesn't, and they are historically very reluctant to run street-running trolleys as seen with the Arborway Line which no longer runs to the Arborway and may never again.  One resident, Dave Pelletier, made waves in the mid '90's by proposing that the Danvers Branch rail line, branching off the main line at Salem Depot and used for freight, be converted to light rail.  It got a lot of attention, but (pun intended) no traction.

A monorail?  Seriously?!!?!

I've suggested myself that the 455 bus, busiest of all routes in Salem, serving downtown, the college, Lynn and beyond, become a trolleybus similar to the routes in North Cambridge or the Silver Line.   There's still the overhead wire problem, but the Silver Line vehicles are dual mode diesel/electric powered and the technology seems to be well-proven.  I've ridden the Silver Line myself and it would be very well suited to Salem.

It may not be historic, but it would be very functional.  Therefore it won't happen.

Not to misunderstand me, but if the trolley tracks still existed on Highland Ave., I'd be all for restoring the service.  I would be delighted to take a trip to Vinnin Square or Market Basket via trolley. 

But I am deeply cynical and mistrustful of people like the Salem News and Mr. Goff who seem to only want "historic" things like trolleys to boost property values.  In the end, it would be much cheaper for Mr. Goff to buy tickets for Salem State students to ride the Salem Trolley.  Their trolleys only look like "real" trolleys, but for Goff, and the Federal Street/Salem Common people, that's all that matters.

It will look historic and boost their property values.  That's all that matters to them and the News.  Not functional transit and retail that would actually be good for downtown and historically authentic.

The same people who love history so are those who killed the Salem Depot project.  We could have had a new train station 5 years ago.  The Federal Street crowd killed it.  During the courthouse meeting a few weeks ago we learned that there is no funding in the current MBTA 5 year capital plan for a new station.   Salem has a rich history of rail transit.  Where was Mr. Goff?

All "history" really is in Salem is property values.  This Salem News proposal is no different. 

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