Streetcar guys can fix what ails us

Wed, Jan 13, 2010


If you want to see old-fashioned competence on display, and think that you have the skill sets to keep up with a bunch of guys who understand machinery the way that Tiger Woods understands golf, here’s a suggestion.

Spend a few hours a week volunteering at the Pikes Peak Historic Street Railway Foundation, tucked away in an old railroad roundhouse at the end of Steel Street, off Polk a few blocks south of Fillmore.

You’ll find an amazing treasure trove of historic streetcars there, some restored, some in the process of restoration, and most waiting their turn.

And you’ll find the streetcar guys there, Greg, Howard, John and a dozen others, who loved streetcars when streetcars weren’t cool, and have been trying to bring them back to the streets of Colorado Springs since 1982.

And now, as cities across the nation have belatedly realized that streetcars are powerful instruments for reviving downtowns, bringing new residents to close-in neighborhoods, reducing congestion, and jump-starting investment, the streetcar guys are looking like inspired visionaries, not just cranky old guys in love with ancient technologies.

Thanks to their obsessive devotion to streetcars, they’ve managed to obtain 14 historic and vintage streetcars, all securely stored at the Foundation. One, a 1917 Birney car that once served the good folks of Fort Collins, is fully restored – and so pristinely beautiful that it’s hard to imagine that vehicles so lovingly crafted, so beautifully built, and so inherently elegant were ever used to transport the public.

Now, as the city takes advantage of a $333,000 grant from public and private sources to explore the feasibility of a downtown streetcar system, we can thank the streetcar guys if one ever gets off the ground.

That’s because restoring vintage streetcars from the 1940s so that they comply with today’s regulatory climate is a lot cheaper than buying new ones – $500 to $750K vs. $3.5 to $4.5 million. And as it happens, more than a decade ago the Foundation managed to scam 10 1947 cars that were originally used in Philadelphia, and bring them to Colorado Springs.

So who are these guys, anyway?

Remember Uncle Fred, who could fix anything? When you were 16, and your junky car broke down, Uncle Fred towed it over to his shop, pulled the engine, fixed the transmission, replaced the seals, welded up a cracked engine mount, finished it all by 5 p.m., and gave you a beer, saying “Don’t tell your Mom!”

The streetcar guys are Uncle Fred on steroids, at ease with the arcana of antique technology, ready to get the cars rolling again. They’re impatient with the sclerotic pace of government projects in this day and age – you have a feeling that, if the city would just get out of the way and let ‘em build the system without interference, and without a lot of pesky rules and regulations, we’d be riding the rails within months.

Meanwhile, if you want to have fun, help out, and learn from the masters, get yourself down to Steel Street. And who knows?  If you know what you’re doing, they might even give you a beer.

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6 Comments For This Post

  1. Rick Wehner Says:

    And how much more could be accomplished if they were not burdened by OSHA, EPA, EEO, WC and having to file environment impact studies and coming up with a plan in case a Prebble Meadows Jumping Mouse shows up in the front yard?

  2. Dick Burns Says:

    I’m glad these folks know how to amuse themselves, but if anyone seriously considers it beneficial to the motoring public to foist a trolley system on an already dysfunctional Tejon Street, well, they’re just plain nuts!

  3. es Says:

    true… but must we have automobiles on Tejon?
    I noticed a section of it was blocked off to traffic on New Years Eve – why not make it permanent? I don’t see how it would impede downtown traffic in any way – Cascade and Nevada aren’t that busy, and Weber’s a wasteland most days.

  4. Dick Burns Says:

    Puhleeze, stop with the anti-motorist rhetoric, ES. And, just try to alter the medians on Cascade or Weber – see how far you get with that notion. Nevada is a four-lane divided highway. Let’s face it folks, the era for streetcars has come and gone. The only population to benefit from a downtown railway would be drunks, vagrants and CC students. Oh, and the guys who think streetcars are sexy and like to work on them.

  5. Mike Matthews Says:

    I’d suggest a visit to Portland, Ore., would be useful in this debate . . .

  6. Molly Says:

    Tejon would make a great ped mall. What about FREX? Where is the outrage? $300,000, could help save the local bus system at night and week-ends. I think Colorado Springs should be re-named Stepford Springs.