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Three Case Studies


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Three Case Studies

As we have seen in our previous studies in this series, looking in some detail at specific operations can be useful. Here, we will consider three different streetcar lines or systems, each with different characteristics.  The first, the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority (MATA) in Dallas, Texas, represents Vintage trolleys run almost entirely with volunteer labor. The second, in Memphis, Tennessee, is also a Vintage trolley operation, but it is run by the local transit authority and operated by transit system employees. Memphis also represents the use of Vintage trolleys as precursors to Light Rail. Finally, we will examine the new streetcar line in Portland, Oregon, which is operated with modern streetcars. These three cases cover a sufficiently wide spectrum that any city or town considering bringing back streetcars will find at least one speaks to its own situation. 

Dallas, Texas

The early history of the McKinney Avenue trolley line holds some useful lessons for anyone interested in bringing back streetcars. It is worth quoting at some length:

In 1981 a Dallas area along McKinney Avenue, characterized by restaurants and specialty shops, was being redeveloped. The effort included excavation and renovation of the brick street paving. Removal of the asphalt revealed a double-track streetcar line that appeared to be in generally sound condition. A local businessman, with restaurant interests along this route, decided that trolley service on that portion of McKinney Avenue would enhance both the ambiance and commercial success of the redevelopment project.  His observation that, “Wouldn't it be nice to have some old streetcars running down our street?” drew local media attention. After screening vintage Dallas trolley movies (supplied by a local VT (Vintage Trolley) enthusiast), the businessman organized MATA as a nonprofit corporation-Section 50l(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code-to build and operate the line. Two local trolley enthusiasts joined the board to oversee technical aspects of the project.

The businessman funded a professional feasibility study that supported the concept. He arranged pro bono public relations and advertising services, conducted fund-raising events, secured local business funding pledges, achieved city support, and applied successfully for two UMTA construction grants. MATA’s early initiatives addressed mainly political hurdles. The businessman headed a small team that promoted MATA steadily before Dallas’ city government for several years. This major effort finally produced the city’s official endorsement and passage, in the Texas Senate, of a bill that limited the liability of city-contracted private transport firms to that of the city itself. Once these hurdles were cleared, MATA began to develop a physical plant.13

That physical plant consisted of a 2.8 mile streetcar line, four vintage streetcars and a car barn. The total cost was $5.5 million, and $3 million of that came from the private sector; a $2.5 million Federal grant supplied the rest. The city of Dallas spent about $200,000 for signs, pavement marking and traffic light relocation. All the antique streetcars were privately donated or funded.

Photo:   Van Wilkins

McKinney Avenue Transit Authority Streetcar.

Service began on July 22, 1989, and it continues today. All operating costs have been privately funded. In its first two years of operation, the McKinney Avenue streetcar had a daily ridership load factor about double that of the surrounding bus system.14 In 1990, the trolley line carried 236,074 passengers and recovered 46% of its costs from the farebox.15

In 1991, MATA faced a financial crisis that led to its current structure as an almost all-volunteer operation (it currently has three paid employees). The fact that the system uses mostly volunteer labor is a principal reason why its operation requires no public funding. Is it really practical to try to run a real transit operation with volunteer labor? McKinney Avenue’s answer is a resounding “Yes!” A detailed study of the line, published in 1992, notes:

MATA’s time sheets reveal that two-thirds of the operating labor hours are volunteer. This volunteer group includes the chief of cardiology at a major hospital, a retired public utility chairman, a bus driver’s union president, educators, business owners, wage earners and college students. Generally they are reliable, motivated, and professional in demeanor. Their accident rate is lower that that of MATA’s paid employees…MATA’s policy assigns each volunteer to a specific task or project that is defined with specific beginnings and completions. Once the volunteer is matched with the job, they usually carry out the assignment with minimal supervision. The volunteer has both the responsibility and the personal recognition for a job well done. The key to volunteer motivation is organization, individual responsibility, recognition, and praise.16

The same study, “McKinney Avenue Transit Authority Experience,” by Frank A Schultz III and John B. McCall (Transportation Research Record 1361), makes a number of other observations that may be useful to cities or towns considering a Vintage trolley line:

  • Is it practical to use actual antique streetcars as opposed to replicas? The study notes:

In retrospect, choice of old cars over replicas was the correct approach. The traditions of MATA’s steel car body designs, one of which is nearly 90 years old, have proven to be extremely reliable. It was the attraction of the genuine article that drew the large, skilled volunteer restorative force that did much of the work on the project. Even if the labor had been purchased, a restored car would still have been less expensive than an estimated (in 1992) $450,000 reproduction car. With the volunteer force, the cost of restoring a double-truck car was approximately $185,000. Additionally, MATA has tied its promotion and marketing to “genuine antique streetcars.”17

  • Is it possible to use the old streetcar rails which still lie under the asphalt on many city streets? The study says, “MATA experience indicates that revival of abandoned track in-place can be done at 10 percent of the cost of new track on a new route.”18 Of course, in some instances the track was worn out by the time regular streetcar service ended, and replacement rails will be needed. But even if that is the case, a great deal of the expense of utility line relocation can be avoided by using old streetcar right-of-way.

  • Is there a good book that can guide a town or city in establishing a streetcar line? The study reaches back into the past to recommend one: “For a project manager new to Vintage Trolleys, a most useful reference is the Electric Railway Handbook by Albert S. Richey, published by McGraw-Hill in 1924.  Reprints of this volume are available from the Association of Railway Museums.”19

Streetcars have now been running on McKinney Avenue for more than a dozen years. Far from being a mere tourist attraction, the line is in the process of becoming a formal part of Dallas’ rail transit system. In 1996, Dallas’ DART transit system opened its first Light Rail line. The McKinney Avenue streetcar line is now being extended on each end to a stop on the Light Rail system. Passengers will be able to transfer easily from Light Rail to streetcar, with the streetcar performing the function it does best, carrying people to local destinations within the city.

Still using almost entirely volunteer labor, the McKinney Avenue streetcar runs seven days a week, twelve hours a day (and later on weekends), 365 days a year. When the extensions to DART are completed, streetcars will run every ten minutes during peak demand hours. McKinney Avenue now has four antique streetcars in service, with four more being rehabilitated. Last year it carried about 50,000 people. It gets not one dollar in taxpayer money for operation.  The one-mile extension on the north end is being built for the remarkably low figure of $3.3 million.20

If you want to bring the streetcars back to your town or city and don't have much money to do it with, the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority offers a very good model. You can contact them at (214) 855-0006.



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