Since the late 1990s, city and transit planners have battled budget cuts, bureaucracy and leadership changes in an effort to bring back the city's fabled Red Car to Downtown.
Now, momentum is building for a renewed charge as the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) last week approved a $100,000, one-year study to resurrect the historic trolley system, which stopped running in 1961.
As new residential and commercial developments continue to transform the area, and tourists flock to landmarks such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels and Staples Center, Downtown boosters see the Red Car as a way to link the destinations with a signature transit line comparable to San Francisco's trolley and Chicago's El.
"This type of system could knit together our disparate districts in a way that a rubber-tired system simply can't do," said Ken Bernstein, a member of the Red Car Advisory Committee and director of preservation issues at the L.A. Conservancy.
The CRA will base the feasibility study on a three-year-old conceptual design by Korve Engineering to determine issues such as funding sources, ridership forecasts, construction and routes. In the original vision, a fleet of 10 trolley cars, which would include replicas as well as some salvaged originals, would traverse a five-mile loop 12 hours a day. The steel-wheeled cars would be powered by overhead electric lines, and the route would take 30 minutes to complete.
Conductors would pick up passengers every five minutes at up to 24 stops. The route would connect South Park, the Financial District, Civic Center, Bunker Hill, Chinatown and the Historic Core. The system would pass within at least three city blocks of every major Downtown attraction, with possible extensions into Exposition Park and Echo Park.
The study will look at how the trolley route would mesh with newly proposed transit projects, including a light rail line along Exposition Boulevard, connections to the Metro Blue and Gold lines, and DASH bus routes.
Bernstein said the project may cost more than $50 million, depending on how many miles and trolley cars are involved. It could be downsized depending on funding.
The renewed interest in the Red Car comes as budgets at every level of government are being slashed, and major transportation projects are being cut back or put on hold.
"It's a major capital investment and such capital investments have a lot of planning and analysis," said Curt Gibbs, a senior resource development officer at the CRA. "This is why a project like this requires full coordination of sister city agencies."
That cooperation hasn't always come easily. In 2001, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority rejected a request for a $600,000 feasibility study. The following year, however, the Red Car Advisory Group appealed to U.S. Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, and secured a $100,000 HUD grant for the current effort.
While funding is scarce, support for the project appears plentiful. Downtown business advocacy group the Central City Association is lobbying for the Red Car's return as both a tourist attraction and a practical people mover.
"It is not a slam dunk, but we believe it's doable," said Carol Schatz, the group's president and CEO. "We' don't get involved in pie in the sky projects. It can happen over the next several years, but certainly not immediately."
Schatz plans to have the MTA and the CCA's transportation and infrastructure committee meet in the coming weeks to discuss funding options.
During its heyday in the 1920s, and later in the 1940s, the Pacific Electric Railway's Red and Yellow cars carried passengers from Downtown to San Bernardino, Santa Ana, San Pedro and San Fernando with a fleet of as many as 900 streetcars. But as the popularity of the automobile grew, ridership declined. The last Red Car was retired in 1961.
"But in the years since, fond memories, and perhaps freeway gridlock, have made the Red Cars more than just a forgotten bit of L.A. history," reads a USC website dedicated to the trolley line. "As the new Metro Green, Red and Blue lines now follow routes often very close to those once traveled by the old Red Car lines, this seems an opportune time to stop and remember what once was the premiere means of getting around southern California."
San Pedro city officials managed to turn that nostalgia into reality last year when they opened a $10 million, 1.5-mile route linking attractions along the San Pedro waterfront. The line operates one original Red Car and two replicas, and runs Friday through Monday when ships are in port.
"Many other cities have revived or created anew historic trolley systems from Dallas to Salt Lake to Portland to San Francisco," said Bernstein, who noted that a number of L.A.'s original Red Cars now operate on Market Street. "Many feel those cars should be back in Downtown Los Angeles."
page 1, 8/23/04
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