Should Steetcars Ply the Streets of Boston Again?

Boston should have far more street car lines than the 5 existing lines. When buses were taking over in the 1940s and 1950s, their maneuverability and low maintenance were good reason to use them. But there is a certain charm, at least, but a new economy with the return of streetcars. Many cities, El Paso, Dallas, Sacramento, Portland OR, and other cities have rebuilt their streetcar lines. New Orleans, which at one point had only its St. Charles route for streetcars, has returned them to the city streets and is still expanding. Certainly if streetcars were so uneconomical and the public so much against them, they would not have sprung up in these cities and thrived. There must be something else in play, something city planners here in the east are missing.

I think Boston should consider returning trolley to the streets of Boston and surrounding communities rather than limiting them to the exclusive rights-of-way as present. One area, which is growing and lacking in ground transportation, is the seaport area. This area is ripe for a streetcar line which could be built along the area’s broad streets. If you look at a map, a line could run in a circular route, starting at Summer Street at South Station, and continuing out to Black Falcon Pier, turning left on Tide Street and then left again on Northern Ave, then Seaport Blvd to Purchase Street where it would turn left until it reached Summer Street. There is a wealth of people who work in this area and another large group, visitors, who depart South Station looking for easy transportation around the seaport area but finding none. And if the MBTA got just a little bit creative, it would find a way to shuttle these streetcars underground at South Station making a very convenience connection to the Red Line.

The MBTA under the agreement struck with the Federal Government promised a return of the Green Line from Brigham Circle, where it ended for a long while, back out to Forest Hills. Businesses along the route complained it would tie up traffic and reduce parking spaces. Each of these argument could have been allayed by the MBTA at the time but instead they simply caved in to public pressure.

The present MBTA proposal for extending the Green Line to West Medford is extremely flawed and the expense involved shows this. The MBTA would do much better but simply putting the tracks into the streets, McGrath Highway out to Broadway, left of Broadway and out Boston Ave to West Medford. The need for building new stations eliminated, construction costs could be kept to a minimum. And with proper planning, road closures could be kept to a minimum. And as for the branch off to Union Square, that could easily be continued to Porter Square.

One thing streetcars have over buses in spades is lifetime. The eldest MBTA buses go back to the early 1990s where as some of the streetcars date back to the 1970s with the Mattapan Line cars dating to the 1940s. The point being, a properly maintained streetcar can easily have 3 times the life expectation as any bus.

Making the a little more interesting, the City of New Orleans orders throwback style streetcar which look old but have all the modern conveniences and are ADA approved. The City of San Francisco found the actual old streetcars valuable as a tourist draw and use them rather extensively. Those cities used their imagination and probably reasoned properly with the public to gain its support.

While downtown Boston certainly is far from ideal for a return of streetcars, when you go just a few miles from center city you find roads more than broad enough to hand both automobile traffic and streetcars. Washington Street, Tremont Street, Massachusetts Avenue, Beacon Street out to Watertown Square and many others could easily be converted but the MBTA has to want to and has to do its homework.

While this may sound like pie in the sky, the operation of streetcars today is far less than that of the bus. And who knows, the public may actually welcome their return!


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