Forget the Bridge to Nowhere. How about the Trolley to Nowhere?
The federal and state governments have just spent about $3 million for new trolley tracks, new trolley wires and new trolley poles along newly reconstructed Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill. But will the iconic green-and-cream trolleys, which were "temporarily" removed from service there in 1992, return?
Don't count on it. SEPTA, which prefers buses, says it has no plans to use the new tracks and wires, much to the dismay of local residents and merchants.
And city officials, who battled SEPTA in the 1990s for return of the trolleys, now say streetcars are not a top priority for them.
So, for the time being, the only trolley along Germantown Avenue will continue to be old No. 2134, converted to an ice cream shop and parked next to the Trolley Car Diner in Mount Airy.
Construction crews this week are finishing the 14-month, $17 million reconstruction of a 3,000-foot-long stretch of Germantown Avenue between Allens Lane and Mermaid Lane. After a year of detours, the avenue is to be fully open to traffic on Monday, just in time for the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.
And on Dec. 5, local merchants will celebrate the reopening of the avenue with a ribbon-cutting at 10 a.m. at Cresheim Valley Drive, followed the next day by a sidewalk-sale "block party" between Nippon Street and Willow Grove Avenue.
Merchants and local residents are glad to have their Main Street back, but many of them are still itching for a return of the trolleys, too. The old Route 23 streetcars, whatever their old-fashioned drawbacks, had a romance that buses lack, they say.
"We'd love to see them back," said Fran O'Donnell, who owns O'Doodle's toy store and heads the Chestnut Hill Business Association. His office is decorated with a picture of one of the old trolleys making its way up the avenue. "That would be a great thing."
Ken Weinstein, who owns the Trolley Car Diner, said local residents fought to have new trolley tracks and wires included in the reconstruction to keep hope alive for the possible return of trolleys.
"We hope to get them back at some point," he said. "I don't know if trolleys are the most efficient mode of transportation, but they would be great for tourism, and they would bring us more business."
Weinstein said he talked to SEPTA officials last week and remained hopeful that, for starters, a trolley or two could be brought back for special events or holidays. He said SEPTA told him that an electrical substation would have to be brought back on line before power would be available to the new trolley wires.
SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said the return of trolleys "is under consideration."
"We have been talking to the city about it," he said. "But it's not in any operational budget at this time."
He said SEPTA no longer owned any trolleys to put on Germantown Avenue. SEPTA has about 130 trolleys and light-rail vehicles in use on other routes in Philadelphia, down from about 1,000 when it acquired the system 40 years ago.
Residents had lobbied the state Department of Transportation to put in the tracks and wires. PennDot agreed to do so, at a cost of $2.9 million. At the time, PennDot spokesman Eugene Blaum said: "The community wanted the tracks to remain, so the infrastructure will be there if the service is ever restored."
The cost of the trolley infrastructure, as well as the cost of the whole project, is being funded 80 percent with federal money and 20 percent with state money.
Buses have replaced trolleys on most routes, including Route 23, which used to be the longest streetcar route in the city, running 121/2 miles between Chestnut Hill and South Philadelphia.
SEPTA prefers buses because they are more adaptable to detours, route changes and double-parked cars. In other cities, though, trolleys and streetcars are enjoying a renaissance, because they don't pollute the air, they're quiet, and, their fans say, they're charming.
San Francisco, Toronto, New Orleans and Portland, Ore., are among cities with growing streetcar systems, and Denver, Houston, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, N.C., have introduced or are planning to introduce trolleys.
"How could they succeed and we can't?" asked Janet Greenstein Potter, a Chestnut Hill activist who has fought for the return of the trolleys for 15 years. "SEPTA would just prefer to be a big bus company. It's a lot simpler for them."
She said SEPTA's strategy "is always 'delay, defer, defeat.' "
Mike Szilagyi, a planner who lives in Mount Airy and is a trolley aficionado, said it would "require a change of heart at SEPTA" to bring back the trolleys. "They've been slowly killing them off for the last 20 years."
Not everyone is a fan of the trolleys, or the new tracks. One commenter wrote yesterday on The Inquirer's news blog: "The trolleys on G'town Ave are a bad idea. One double-parked car and you're delayed by a half hour. They shouldn't have put new tracks in, that was stupid."
Rina Cutler, deputy mayor for transportation, said the city was "currently working to develop our priority list for SEPTA. While trolley service may be on that list, I am not sure it will be in the top five."
Considering the prospect of a trolley return, Potter said yesterday she would "not bet the farm, but I wouldn't give up hope, either."
"Someone could put two and two together and realize that the things you need for bringing them back are now in place."