Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Desire Named Streetcar

(Middletown trolley lines circa 1913.)

With only two items on the agenda, the Redevelopment Agency found time to be expansive and enthusiastic on the topic of a streetcar for Middletown's Main Street.

After announcing that the Broad Park Development Corporation and Nehemia Housing would not be in attendance, but that a groundbreaking for the North End Homeownership project would take place on Monday June 22, chairman Shannon Brown hailed the streetcar as a topic.

City planner Bill Warner gave a history of the streetcar concept explaining that money for the project actually comes from a federal grant sought in 2002 when the Goodspeed Opera House was considering relocation to Middletown. Some of the money has gone toward or will go toward a rebuild of the parking garage adjacent to the courthouse and the police station. The remaining money is earmarked for transportation, and with the enthusiastic participation of Middletown Area Transit, the idea of a short-run streetcar, on tracks from, as Jen Alexander said, "church to church."

Warner and Alexander explained that communities which have built streetcar lines have seen broad economic expansion along the route, and increased demand for housing. In addition, they explained that most communities which have installed short lines have sought to expand them after a few years of operation.

Zoning Commissioner Catherine Johnson, who was speaking as a member of the public, but with some expert knowledge of public transit explained that the single mile of track could be expaned to five more miles, connecting the city from the High School off of Newfield, to the shopping developments on Washington Streets, South to the convergence of medical facilities on Saybrook Road, and Southwest along South Main Street.

Alexander explained that the streetcar would run along the right hand traffic lane up and down Main Street, along with auto traffic.

The $10-12 million transit infrastructure project was embraced readily by board member and City Council member David Bauer.

"It's about as worthwhile a thing as we could do," he suggested. "I try to see this as solving problems of the future."

"When we think what we can do that sets the city up for the next several decades, then this is right at the top of the list," Alexander added.

Alexander and Warner indicated that for the project to go forward the city would likely have to spend its own money for a feasibility study.

"What I see very little of in my involvement in the city is big picture stuff," board chairman Shannon Brown noted. "I think this project has the potential to generate interesting and productive discussion in Middletown. And I think this committee can act as a catalyst and that we can play a useful role to set this underway."

Brown's comment was in reply to a suggestion that the streetcar project may not belong under the umbrella of the Redevelopment Agency. Johnson suggested the formation of an independent Transit Commission, but Warner suggested that the creation of more bureaucracy was not a successful way to guarantee funding.

"With so much enthusiasm here," Alexander suggestion. "This may be the appropriate place for the project through the feasibility study."

"There are a lot of places this project could be sent to die," Bauer added.

The agency voted to continue discussion and investigation of the project.

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