Trolleys a hit, in Dallas, anyway | AspenTimes.com

Trolleys a hit, in Dallas, anyway

Janet Urquhart
Aspen Times Staff Writer

A trolley line could help put Aspen’s struggling economy back on track, if a Dallas suburb’s experience with trolleys is any indication.

That, at least, is what one Aspen-Snowmass vacationer has told members of the Aspen Street Railway Co. Otto Wetzel of Dallas was in town to catch some of the Aspen Music Festival, which wrapped up last weekend. He happens to be president of the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority.

When Wetzel read local news reports of the railway company’s hopes to construct a trolley line in Aspen, he gave company spokesman Jon Busch a call.

Members of the railway company and Terry Paulson, a city councilman and trolley supporter, took some time Monday to quiz Wetzel about his experiences in running a trolley system.

The McKinney trolley line serves a commercial zone not unlike the area envisioned for an Aspen line, according to Wetzel. It started as a 2.8-mile track that has been expanded to more than five miles. It runs close to downtown Dallas, in what was one of the city’s first suburbs – a one-time residential area that gave way to commercial uses and fell into a state of decline.

The trolley line gave the neighborhood a definite boost, according to Wetzel.

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“It’s an economic engine, absolutely,” he said. “It took an area that was, I won’t say blighted, but had deteriorated . it has just brought life back to it – restaurants, specialty shops, grocery stores have all come in since the trolley.”

Aspen voters will be polled in November on a proposed trolley system, using the city’s six historic cars. The railway company is preparing to register as a campaign committee so it can begin rallying voter support for the proposal. The ballot question gives the railway group responsibility for raising $5.5 million privately to have a system built and ready to turn over to the city by Oct. 21, 2008.

The trolleys would run from Rubey Park down Galena Street, loop around Rio Grande Park and end in the vicinity of the post office.

Monday, members of the group asked Wetzel about how the Dallas system is financed, how much noise their cars make and how the community reacted to the proposal to install the line.

The McKinney line is powered by overhead wires, while the Aspen trolleys would run with an on-board power source. The Dallas trolleys run in mixed traffic with vehicles, just as the Aspen cars are envisioned to operate.

The four antique cars running in Dallas don’t make much noise on the new sections of track, but are noisier on the old tracks, Wetzel reported.

He remembers few objections to the system, which was proposed in the early 1980s and began operation in 1989, though Wetzel said he remembers one reaction: “If we got rid of them in 1956, why are we trying to bring them back now?”

A restaurateur along the line noticed the old tracks in the street during repaving work and initiated the idea of putting trolleys back into service in Dallas, Wetzel recalled.

“It just kind of snowballed,” he said.

Early on, the trolley line went “from nowhere to nowhere,” he said. Now, the expanded line connects with the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system and attracts commuters as well as local traffic, Wetzel said. The line runs in an area where a lot of pedestrians jump on and off the cars to move about, he said.

The system runs from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., with three cars running at peak hours and two the rest of the time. It serves some 2,000 passengers a week, and further expansion of the line is in the plans, he said.

The Dallas trolleys are free to ride. “It’s like your shuttle buses,” Wetzel said. The system is funded by Dallas Area Rapid Transit and a local improvement district that taxes property owners near the line.

“The business community thinks enough of it that they tax themselves to make it work,” Busch observed.

Wetzel offered the Aspen railway group a video on the Dallas system that Busch said he hopes can be broadcast locally on GrassRoots TV.

[Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com]