El Paso is joining a renaissance of streetcar operations among cities that once had PCC streetcars in operation.
The vintage streetcars called PCC’s for short are named after their designers in the Electric Railway Presidents Conference Committee, a group of managers and presidents of streetcar systems that formed in 1929 to improve operations. PCCs, of which only 5,000 were ever built, were once operational in more than 30 North American cities in the mid 19th century. Today, PCC streetcars are operational in just seven cities: Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, Newark, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, and Shaker Heights, Ohio. This year, El Paso will become the eighth.
“The majority of heavy construction is complete with testing set to begin soon,” said spokesperson Martin Bartlett of Barracuda Public Relations. “Operation is expected to begin by the end of 2018.”
El Paso’s anxiously awaited streetcar system has been years in the making, starting with the El Paso City Council’s approval of a route for the streetcar in 2012.
“The route is 4.8 miles and connects South El Paso – near the international bridges to Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico – to Downtown El Paso with amenities like museums, hotels and the convention center [to] the University of Texas at El Paso and Kern Place Entertainment District,” Bartlett said.
The route, which has 27 stops, will run in two loops: the Downtown Loop which runs along Santa Fe Street, Franklin Avenue, Kansas Street and Father Rahm Avenue, and the Uptown Loop which runs along Franklin Avenue, Stanton Street, Baltimore Drive, Glory Road, and Oregon Street.
After a route was approved, a $97-million grant was secured from the Texas Department of Transportation using plans designed by the City of El Paso. Construction, managed by the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority, began a little more than a year ago. Upon completion, the streetcar system will be operated by the city’s Sun Metro mass transit department.
But El Paso’s history with PCC streetcars goes back much further than 2012.
“Streetcars ran in El Paso until 1974,” Bartlett said.
Eight PCC streetcars were operational in El Paso from 1949 to 1974, according to an El Paso Times archive.
When operations were discontinued in the mid ‘70s, the streetcars were put into storage. In 2015, six of the original streetcars were sent to Brookville, Pennsylvania for re-manufacturing by restoration experts at the Brookville Equipment Corp. When finished, the six streetcars will don color schemes from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, and be outfitted with modern amenities that include Wi-Fi and air conditioning. The first completed streetcar is on its way back to El Paso this week.
Construction for the project, which has caused traffic delays, has included utility relocation, construction of a new maintenance and storage facility, sidewalk repairs, installation of rail, placement of the 27 stops, and the complete reconstruction of some streets and resurfacing work of other streets.
Cecilia Walker, writing center coordinator at El Paso Community College’s Rio Grande campus in Sunset Heights, said she worries what the trolley system will do to traffic once in operation.
“I feel like it’s going to be dangerous, especially at the El Paso and Oregon intersection,” Walker said. “You have bus stops, students walking, now the trolley and all the cars trying to turn. I am not sure it was well thought out. I think it’s a nice idea, but not necessary.”
To address safety concerns, Sun Metro produced a safety brochure detailing how pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists should maneuver around the trolleys. Sun Metro warns all of those in transit to be aware that: Streetcars are extremely quiet; Streetcars use warning bells and horns; There are no fences or barriers that separate you and the streetcar; Streetcars cannot move off the tracks to avoid obstacles and cannot make abrupt stops in traffic; and streetcars have their own traffic signals that are not intended for motorists. For a copy of the safety brochure, please visit www.sunmetro.net/streetcar.
What do you think? Will the new streetcar be great for El Paso – or not?