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Trolleys may return to downtown Lowell

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Rail revival: Trolleys may return downtown

By MICHAEL LAFLEUR Sun Staff | Sunday, February 20, 2005

LowellTrolley.jpg

LOWELL -- Seventy years ago, the electric trolley was king of transportation in this city.

The growing popularity of the automobile killed Lowell's trolleys in 1935, but, quietly, city officials are now talking about bringing back this piece of history to create a new symbol of the city for the future.

As envisioned, the project would link the Lowell National Historical Park's existing, 1.2-mile trolley system -- now used solely for tourist purposes -- with the Gallagher Intermodal Terminal on Thorndike Street and other city venues.

If this happened, visitors could ride a trolley from the Gallagher Terminal to the city's sports attractions, Tsongas Arena and LeLacheur Ballpark, or connect with the University of Massachusetts Lowell dorms on Pawtucket Street. People who have moved into the new downtown condominiums could hop on the Fletcher Street line and easily shop at the Demoulas Market Basket Supermarket in the Acre.

There is a long road to get to that point, however. Representatives of the city, federal government, Lowell National Historical Park, Northern Middlesex Council of Governments and the Lowell Regional Transit Authority all will have a say.

In the next nine months, those officials will consider their transit options, how much each will cost and how it will affect downtown traffic and the environment. They will also ask members of the public what they think.

At the conclusion of this $572,000 federally funded study, there will be a question: Should Lowell's trolley system be expanded?

"We're presenting an opportunity," said Peter Aucella, assistant superintendent for development for the Lowell national park. "It's up to the community to decide if it's a good fit. There are trade-offs to be made, and if the community says no, that's an acceptable answer."

Another crucial factor will be whether the project is supported by the LRTA, which likely would be charged with hiring an operating company to run the trolleys, as it does with the region's buses.

But LRTA Administrator James Scanlan has invested in using buses painted and adorned with features to look like trolleys to serve the downtown. He is now overseeing the final stages of construction of a bus transfer hub at the Gallagher Terminal that would serve as the point of origin for a "downtown circulator" route that would use those trolley buses.

The cost is predicted in a 2002 federal feasibility study as $23.4 million to $52.7 million, depending on the route taken to connect with the Gallagher Terminal. It may not cost city residents a cent.

Depending on the study results, the Federal Transit Administration and National Park Service may split the entire cost.

"Nobody wants to be tackling pie-in-the-sky projects, but there seems to be a very viable funding source to get this done," said J. Matthew Coggins, Lowell's assistant city manager for planning and development.

Scanlan said the LRTA has spent $1.7 million buying six compressed natural-gas-powered trolley buses to run its downtown circulator routes. Despite that, he insisted that he would keep an open mind about trolley study.

Scanlan's position concerns trolley advocates like Jim Schantz, board chairman of the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine, which operates a satellite museum in Lowell and runs a historic trolley car on the current system. The museum would likely staff a trolley garage and maintenance facility for any expanded system.

"People are not drawn to the fake, rubber-tire trolleys," Schantz said. "There's nothing special about them. Every city has them, and they don't have the charm that the real trolleys have."

Scanlan served as secretary of transportation under former acting Gov. Jane Swift. Schantz said he sees an "anti-light-rail" bias at the state level.

"That could end up affecting Lowell," Schantz said. "Scanlan is a child of that."

According to the 2002 feasibility study on the project, by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Volpe Center in Cambridge, horse-drawn trolleys were introduced in Lowell in 1864. Electric trolleys began running routes in the city in 1889 and operated until 1935.

The Lowell national park began running "historic replica" electric trolleys between several of its attractions in 1984.

Diana Prideaux-Brune, UMass Lowell's vice chancellor for facilities, said the project fits with the history of Lowell. "The trolleys used to be a major part of how goods and people were moved in this city. I honestly believe that if a trolley went to our dorms, they'd get a lot more students going to the downtown."

From The Lowell Sun

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