The Colorado Springs urban rail network of a century ago may have disappeared, but the fierce streetcar advocates have dedicated themselves to restoring local trolley service since 1982, when they founded the Pikes Peak Historical Street Railway Foundation.
Now, after ignoring streetcars for nearly 30 years, the city of Colorado Springs is sponsoring a $330,000 feasibility study to determine whether streetcars should again be a part of the city’s transportation mix.
The city hosted a public meeting on Jan. 12 where stakeholders and the public discussed potential rail alignments and streetcar technology and commented about the study.
Funding for the study has come from private entities, including the Downtown Development Authority, Colorado College and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, as well as from federal government planning grants, which can only be used for planning studies and not for transit operations.
Why study the feasibility of streetcars now, at a time when the city has cut transit services because of massive budgetary shortfalls?
The availability of the planning grants, according to the city’s Web site.
“It’s is important to take advantage of planning grants while they are available so that future transportation improvements can be implemented when the local and national economies recover and are able to support them,” the site says.
At the Streetcar Foundation’s “car barn” in the Roswell neighborhood roughly south of Fillmore Street and north of the Penrose St. Francis hospital, the volunteers who labor there are hopeful, if skeptical.
A few of them suspect the renewed effort will only produce report upon report to no end.
But the foundation’s restoration director Greg Roberts believes streetcar technology is simple, durable, and reliable.
During the past three decades, they’ve managed to acquire and begin restoration of 15 historic streetcars, including 10 relatively modern cars last used in Philadelphia during the 1970s.
“Look at this switch,” he said, holding a massive contraption of copper, steel, and coiled wire, “If it breaks, you can fix it. It’s not complicated — it’s not like a solid-state device that fails, and then you don’t have the source code, and the manufacturer is in Poland, and you’re out of service for weeks.”
The Foundation’s streetcar inventory includes a fully restored Birney car from 1918, a symphony of polished brass, gleaming wood, and fresh paint.
Less elegant, but gracefully nostalgic, are the eight art deco-influenced cars built during 1947 for the Philadelphia transit system.
Roberts says that when fully restored, the cars could provide most, if not all, of the rolling stock for an extensive streetcar system.
But the city’s Web site makes it clear that the foundation, although peripherally involved in the feasibility study, is not driving the project.
“This study is a totally separate effort,” it says “not to be confused with the Historic Railway Foundation, which is a volunteer-based effort to refurbish vintage trolleys. The Foundation does not have a leadership role in the study, nor is it helping to fund the study.”
John Haney, who helped create the foundation, welcomes the study nevertheless.
“It’s got to be the high water mark for our foundation,” he said, “and this is just the beginning. The study has to be the vehicle to begin the process, and the type of car has yet to be determined. But (in other cities) the historical aspect has been a huge drawing card.”
So are the Pennsylvania cars ready to be put in service?
“They’re going to require some renovation,” Haney said, “But we’re pretty doggone close.”
To demonstrate, Noble threw a switch in the roundhouse, powered up the system, and rolled a few yards down the tracks outside the car barn.
For a moment, it was back to the future.