Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Streetcar, trolley or light rail?

How many times do you hear people say they love the light rail line in Charlotte but they don't want a trolley. By which they mean a streetcar. If you know much about transit systems, that sentence may strike you as nonsense. A streetcar does not equal a trolley, although some streetcars may be trolleys. Trolleys typically run in the street, but not always.

Terminology is obscuring the public debate.

I'm sitting at Charlotte City Council meeting awaiting their votes on a couple of items: Whether to apply for a federal grant to extend the already-begun 1.5-mile streetcar project, and whether to spend almost $900,000 to demolish the now-city-owned Eastland Mall, a defunct regional shopping mall on Charlotte' East Side.

So I took advantage of the attendance of Ron Tober, former CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System, former executive director of the nonprofit group Charlotte Trolley Inc., and current consultant with Parsons Brinckerhoff. He has worked on transit systems all over the country, from heavy rail (which does NOT mean intercity passenger rail; it means it has a third rail, which is electrified, as in subways, and deadly to touch, as in "Social Security is the third rail of American politics"), to light rail to commuter rail to streetcars to trolleys.

1. What is a "trolley"? 
Tober: The term trolley is used for a historic (or faux historic) car that runs on rails and is fed by an overhead electric wire.

2. Are streetcars and trolleys the same?
Tober: Not if they use modern cars. Trolleys can run in the street or on dedicated tracks.
In other words, streetcar systems such as Portland's or Seattle's are fed by overhead electric wires, but aren't "trolley" systems as the term is generally used in the transit-building world.

3. If the Lynx used old-timey-looking cars, would it then be a trolley?
Tober: Yes.

So there you are. To say Charlotte's proposed streetcars would "waddle" down the street is true only if the cars are unstable. Which the Federal Transit Administration won't allow.

To save money, for the early 1.5-mile streetcar starter project now under construction, the city plans to use the faux historic streetcars purchased originally to run on the Lynx tracks, part of the now-comatose Charlotte Trolley nonprofit group's pre-Lynx-line project that ran a historic and then the faux-historic cars along what's now the Lynx rails.

So you will see historic-ish cars running on overhead electric wires, along Elizabeth Avenue and East Trade Street. That will be both a streetcar and a trolley.

But when the envisioned modern cars arrive for the envisioned streetcar project -- whenever or if that happens -- it won't be a "trolley" line any more. It will be a modern streetcar.


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