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Return of
the Ithaca Trolley


by Paul Glover  *  August 1992

The trolley's return in the 1990's made Ithaca festive all year. The benefits of the trolley to the local economy, to environ-mental quality and community spirit easily repaid the investment. Bold and agressive action and creative funding got it moving. Today we're taking a ride:

Starting high up the rail's east end, we board with students and commuters at Pleasant Grove Road near Hasbrouck Apartments, by parking lot A and North Campus. This trolley car is a 1905 Gilbert frame completely rebuilt, like the other six cars, by local talent. Carpentry, cabinetry, electric systems, upholstery, welding, ironwork, fancy wood doors and stained glass windows show the best of local craft. The inlay siding and trim are local oak, maple, cherry and ash. We bought the frame from a collector for $12,000 and a lifetime pass. Our electric motors were donated by a local industry.

The trolley bell rings and we pull away at 14mph. Every ten minutes another trolley follows.

From one end of the line to the other, this trolley is more than a ride. It's a theatrical event. Decorated with flowers, banners and flags, wind-spinners, local artwork and hand-woven lace curtains, these trolleys are Ithaca's soul on wheels. Solar-powered running lights at night sparkle along the bombay roof and running boards. Between this car's front lights is a flowing blue waterfall.

This morning a music student is playing soft oboe melodies on her way to Lincoln Hall. We're as likely to hear guitar, saxophone or autoharp, or background tapes provided by one of Ithaca's hundreds of musicians. Some days there's a brief 'trolley lecture' on topics like architecture, sports, butterflies, or electromagnetic force, by whoever is inspired.

We glide down Triphammer Road, Thurston and Wait Avenues, gener- ating electricity as we go, then cross the Triphammer bridge at Beebe Lake and turn right. We stop at Sibley, pass Tjaden, then round left to stop on a passing switch in front of Johnson Art Museum. We roll slowly along the crest of libe slope, enjoying the fifteen-mile view. This part of the trolley route is especially popular with visiting parents. Every Cornell graduate rides on graduation day, then at reunions. Convention and conference goers, students, tourists and townies find better access to campus. We curve around the brow of Uris to the base of the clock tower. These two symbols of Cornell and Ithaca, the tower and trolley, pause together before we continue downhill between Willard Straight and the Campus Store. The trolley helps prospective students and their families fall in love with the campus, making Cornell more competitive with other Ivy League schools. More alumni return for reunions and make more donations. The campus is a more attractive site for conferences. The avoided costs of additional parking lots (and more profitable and pleasant use of land) helps Cornell's budget further. Trolley-riding students spend more of their money in the city that provides them fire protection. Because of the financial, public relations and transport benefits, the university has found over $1 million of donations from trolley-loving alumni.

Central Avenue to the traffic light has been converted to Trolley Park,with brickwork, trees, picnic benches and bandstand, popcorn and cider. The whole park was paid for by one alumnus. The passing switch here lets an uphill trolley continue. The uniformed conductors salute each other with another flourish of bells.

We continue down Central Avenue (double-tracked), ringing for right-of-way. Crossing Cascadilla bridge we make a smart right, and stop along the north side of the Performing Arts Center. Some of our passengers step out to shop in Collegetown or hike down the Cascadilla Glen trail. Others board for downtown.

We pass through Eddygate, sand-blasted and bright after years of neglect. We halt on Eddy Street's passing switch, generating more electricity as we brake, then move along to State Street.

Ithaca's trolleys on steep green hills and 'central isolation' have brought us international notice. We're one of the smallest cities in the USA with a light rail system: a miniature San Francisco, the trolley tourism capital of the east.

Thousands of additional visitors come here yearly, leaving their cars outside the city and riding trolleys, buses and pedal cabs to the many bed & breakfast inns downtown. We feature great views, friendly people, quiet streets, famous restaurants and shops, art shows and gorges. All are best visited slowly. Trolley tourism is more profitable than car tourism. Trolley tourists are taken where they want to go without clogging and cracking our streets, without wasting time hunting parking. They don't spray our children with carcinogens (benzene, asbestos, etc.) or damage public health with ozone and sulphur dioxides. Ithaca's popular trolley movie shows them how we organized and financed our trolleys during a serious recession. They tell their friends they learned something outstanding in Ithaca, New York.

Everybody new to Ithaca or to the route gets a trolley route menu. Even natives rediscover their city:

Eddy Street and State Street were part of Ithaca's first trolley system, from 1887 to 1935. In 1892 engineering professors were hired by horsecart haulers to declare that electric trolleys could not possibly climb these hills. But trolleys did, originally powered by hydroelectricity from Six Mile Creek, Cascadilla and Fall Creeks. One hundred years later certain experts said we couldn't afford to rebuild trolleys, but they were wrong too.

During those early trolley years crowns of light and garlands of flowers often made our electric horses cheerful, as well as useful. Bright trolley-top- globes signalled good skating at Beebe Lake, bringing town and gown together.

The route was then, and is now, a silver spine connecting the best of Ithaca. Sunset on State Street rails gives the hill another waterfall, of steel.

During those first 48 years, millions of rides were taken; five people were killed in trolley accidents. By 1992, jammed with automobile traffic, these routes were injuring 70 people yearly. Hundreds more were hurt by cars yearly on other city streets.

Today just one of Ithaca's original trolleys remains, a model for our new ones, and we will see it up ahead.

We pause at another passing switch on Eddy Street to let another trolley by. It carries bicycles out back, probably for students returning from shopping and touring, or tourists and townies going biking at the Plantations. Someone offers a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson: "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive."

State Street is double-tracked, one track each edge of roadway, for the 90-second traverse (at 14 mph) of the one third mile to the curve at Seneca Way. There's less car traffic to disturb, because the trolleys and buses, park-and-rides, bike paths and pedal cabs help clear the streets. Plans are made to convert the top level of Seneca Street parking garage (rarely full anyway) to mutual housing, generating much more revenue than parking/shopping had. While the parking garages had lost $400,000 yearly, housing conversion produces property tax and sales tax that are dedicated to trolleys. The ramp's dull walls are being made friendlier.

When these rails were re-laid, this street's original bricks were placed along the rails to make a red path. We slow along Seneca Way, merging left to the Commons-side of Seneca Street. We've got an exclusive trolley route the next six blocks to Corn (doubling as an ambulance expressway), by replacing about 30 CBD parking spaces and 16 spaces beyond. The trolleys bring hundreds daily who would not otherwise have come downtown, and reduce the need for parking spaces as well.

The Tioga trolley stop is the gateway to the Commons. Passengers depart through a ramp at the level of the trolley's top step (for wheelchair access), which passes through a gazebo. The whole Commons is redecorated too. The old prison yard paving is now covered with huge brilliant mosaics of our region's waterfalls, plants, animals, crops, inventions and clouds. These were designed and installed by local artists. Success of the Steamboat Landing Farmer's Market taught Commons merchants that people want to shop where friends, nature, color and fun are as important as sales. When we began our trolley system we knew it needed to be done with enthusiasm and adventure, spotlighting the beauty in our city and the many attractions on the route.

And it had to be done by local people, donating time and talent. Business planners, engineers, accountants, architects, writers, land-scapers, gardeners, mechanics, artists, welders, electricians, citizens senior and junior all built it together, like a Bob Leathers playground, with professional direction. While City Hall was cooperative, granting the rail franchise, providing DPW labor, and moving contracts and permits through boards and commissions, most leadership and fundraising came from the general public. We avoided overpriced contractors and consultants as much as possible.

The Ithaca Trolley Authority has the power of government, to coordinate track engineering and electrification, signals and communications, fare collection, maintenance, quality control, insurance, energy management, volunteers and legal support. And fundraising. The ITA offers tax-exempt bonds, and taxes nonresidential properties within its Trolley Assessment District along the route. Administrative costs are low: small salaries are paid to public servants who love Ithaca and trolleys. More about fundraising as we go.

Hundreds of local artists have been organized, to make sure the Commons is always lively. You never know what's happening till you go: some days there are tightrope walkers, comedians, jugglers, mimes, acrobats, singers or dancers. Sidewalk artists invite everyone to help chalk grey patches. All scheduled performers are paid with tokens called Commons Cents (in denominations of 100, 500 and 1,000 Cents). They and other artists collect donations from the crowds.

Most dramatically, the Commons is being connected with a tree-level iron-framed balcony (roof and floor of thick aerogel glass) on which the merchants below have outposts. Many more small informal vendors of locally-made goods, including local farmers and artists, are welcome on this Commons Gallery. Thousands of extra riders come downtown who otherwise went to northeast malls. And they find easy access to reasonably-priced basic goods.

On the other side of Seneca Street buses carry more riders than ever. Because the trolleys are historic, modern, stylish and frequent, they've taught Ithaca that transit is not just for people too poor to have cars. Transit is increasingly convenient, cheaper, ecological and restful.

More Ithaca trolleys are planned (out Slaterville Road, the Trumansburg grade, the Cortland grade, down Conrail south to Spencer) and buses are routed to carry people where rails don't yet go. Other cities had already discovered bus ridership up when trolleys are installed.

Car #56, the last of Ithaca's first trolleys, sits in a rail circle at the center of the Commons. Old timers help it tell its story. Here we buy more tickets. A trolley token costs 50 cents, a day pass costs $2.00, a twelve-ride pass is $5.00, a year pass $200, and a lifetime pass $5,000. Ithaca HOURS are accepted. Two of our trolley cars were paid for, in fact, by advance ticket sales.
Commons merchants will accept trolley tokens for face value, toward any purchase. The tokens and $5.00 passes circulate as money in the Ithaca area, further boosting local exchange.

Next stop is on Seneca at Cayuga Street. Kids board for a safe ride to Cass Park. Tourists reboard to continue the route after visiting the Commons. Some students and townfolk are aiming for GreenStar or the bus station. Those stepping out might be pleased by another surprise party on Clinton House' big front porch. Free ice cream and samples from local restaurants and farms are ready for us. We're greeted by a tall bearded guy dressed like Ezra Cornell, gracious ladies with hoop skirts, and gentlemen with top hats. Inside, the DeWitt Historical Society has a popular trolley display. We learn that Ithaca was home to inventor Frank Sprague, whose trolley electric system was used by nearly all U.S. trolleys 90 years ago. This is another pedal cab station for those wanting rides on bike lanes to Ithaca Falls, Cas-cadilla Park, bed & breakfasts, or home again.

Others along Seneca Street will board to connect with the Weekend Shuttle (WEESH), which goes north on Conrail track (at Fulton) to the Farmer's Market at Steamboat Landing (now with real steamboat rides), to Community Gardens and the Sciencenter, to Stewart Park (and Ithaca Festival), the Youth Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce (which is also a park & ride lot for trolley tourists). Southward on Conrail the Shuttle goes to Nate's Floral Estates, Southwest Park (co-housing, greenhousing, wood-lot), crosses forest and beaver dams on the way to Buttermilk Falls State Park, the bed & breakfast there, and soccer fields. With the cooperation of Morse Chain, this old rail spur climbing South Hill is being cleared over to South Hill school. Now there's easy access to and from South Hill, and an unusual view of Ithaca through wild lands a few blocks from the Commons. We're off again with bells and windchimes. A harmonica plays "Down in the Valley." Our ticket takers are trained volunteers, of all ages.

The next stop is Geneva Street by Seneca Service gas station. Even the city's gas stations are benefitting by Ithaca's two cent per gallon Local Option Trolley Tax. Thousands of environmentally concerned locals and appreciative visitors are glad to pay extra pennies for refills. Many consider it a civic duty to gas up here, a good investment for a healthy future for their children. This tax is nothing compared to Europe's, where gasoline taxes run $1.00-$3.00 per gallon, but Ithaca collects about $400,000 yearly. Several Florida cities take six cents per gallon for transit.

Big green signs announce that Seneca Service recycles oil and freon. They do propane conver-sions. The trolley, in fact, might have saved this gas station from destruction. Plans had been drawn to destroy everything on that block (between Geneva and Albany) to build another parking garage. Up to $8,000,000 was going to be spent for 600 parking spaces. But trolleys needed far less than that amount for tracks, wires and cars, and those properties, now bounded on two sides by trolley lines, are valuable shops, co-housing, offices and green space. Some step out for Catholic churches, bottle recycling, Bev Martin elementary, and GIAC.

Plain Street is another residential stop: more families to the parks. And there's nothing plain about Seneca Street anymore. The whole route sports a bright yellow stripe between rails. Artists designed banners for the trolley posts. RSVP seniors tend flowers every inch. At the next corner we turn right, and then left onto Buffalo.

Trolleys have raised commercial property value along the route, and the added tax revenues, about $200,000/year so far, are returned to the trolleys as tax increment financing. At the same time, Ithaca's Mutual Housing Association keeps housing costs and rents lower by removing nearby homes from the speculative market. Tax incentives are offered for gradual conveyance of rentals to the Urban Land Trust.

We cross Meadow Street, still Ithaca's traffic sewer. It'll take decades to rebuild enough of the continental rail system to repair the damage to America that automobiles did.

Ninety years ago 44 cities in New York State had trolley systems and most were connected to each other by inter-urban rail. Safe, clean, and necessary again. The alternative to rails is more random destruction of farmland and wetland, for highways to suburbs. And the big dead end of oil, within thirty years. Revival of passenger and freight rail became understood as essential to national security.

Good news up ahead. GreenStar Food Co-op is still dedicated to local organic food, bulk more than packaged, and vegetarian meals. GreenStar members welcome trolley riders with food samples. All money spent there is reinvested in Ithaca. GreenStar has removed paving for a small trolley park. Local farmers exhibit their tools and trade, talk crops and occasionally hire help. They're the real heroes of our local economy, the genuine social security our kids will have. Today there's a petting zoo. Here's where most people board WEESH. Others climb out for the bus station-- the original west end trolley station.

Now onto Inlet Island, we cross Buffalo and stop between three fine restaurants. From the Station at left the Black Diamond express train carried Ithacans to New York City daily, till 1963.

Inlet Island is rebuilt with shops, a gaslamp waterfront promenade, and floral park. Pole barges give rides in channels draped with forsythia and clematis. There are excursion boat rides on the lake. Centerpiece of the park is a model of Cayuga Lake forty feet long. Guides explain the lake's water flow (nine year cycle), history (once crossed by the world's longest bridge) and folklore (mysterious booming drums), plus geology (formed by glaciers a half mile deep), ecology (Cayuga trying to become a swamp again), and fishing (stocked with millions of trout yearly). We're standing where airplanes were once built, from where the 1915 world airspeed record (93.5mph) was launched above Cass Park.

Aboard again, across the new West End bridge, sliding past traffic jams. The New York State Department of Transportation was once going to build a West Hill highway 2.3 miles long here, spending up to $35 million. The DOT has since realized that, because of oil dependence, highways get us nowhere. Those millions are now devoted to rail travel, which is some 17 times more energy-efficient. Trolleys are leading Ithaca's transition from car dependence. Cars were combat tanks in our war against nature, and ravaged our local economy. Over 25% of all Tompkins County personal income was drained out of town for car-related expenses like sales, insurance, gasoline, hospitalization, parts and repairs, yet cars provided only 5% of Tompkins County jobs. Much of that money is now staying in our region, helping us start many more jobs in healthier industries, including rail accessories. Much of the rail system is built right here in New York State: Elmira, Binghamton and Rochester manufacture and repair rail components.Ithaca's high-quality low-budget trolley know-how gives us expertise sought by other small cities. Car travel had been subsidized directly and indirectly by about $7 million per year of the city's budget. A third of Ithaca's municipal debt was caused by cars. With the demand for trolleys, the city's public works budget shifted $500,000/year from roads to rails. The decrease of car traffic reduced road repair costs, and improved emergency fire and medical access.

Next stop is the Cass Playground-Pavilion-Park & Ride. From here, bicyclists take the old railroad grade, an easy ride to Taughannock Park and Trumansburg. Baseball players and fans hike over to the fields.

Our trolley continues on Route 89 to the swimming pool, the Hangar Theatre, Treman Marina and Ithaca orchard. From the Cass Park & Ride many are rowed across the lake to the Farmer's Market, avoiding traffic there.

Although the trolley project was widely popular, the main obstacle encountered had been yawning cynics, who saw challenges as barriers. Foremost of these was City Hall's Planning Department. Experts in the details of conventional development, devoted to wider highways and taller buildings, the Department's vision rarely reached beyond real estate deals. If the Department endorsed a project, action was taken and money spent. But citizen-initiated projects for parks, bikeways, community gardens, trolleys and historic preservation tended to be stalled. Funding sat idle. Rather than promote import replacement and grassroots ecological development, the Department helped tie Ithaca to corporations loyal only to profit. Despite the millions that taxpayers spent for planning during the past twenty years, the Department hadn't studied the basics for responsible plans: the supply sources of Ithaca's food and fuel, or the flow of money. Nor had it inventoried the potentials for locally-generated industry using local resources. Ithaca Journal editorials usually followed the Department's lead. Then new leadership cleared the track for Ithaca's trolley. The resources of the Department were enthusiastically organized to support trolley-inspired development, and to win state and federal rail grants.

We return along West State Street. Removal of a thin asphalt skin reveals red bricks all the way to the Commons. The trolley's eastward route is the mainspring of West State renewal, bringing visitors, shoppers, and new residents to central housing.

Half the City's share of the 1992 one cent county sales tax increase feeds the trolleys about $475,000/year. This took the sting from the tax.

Much funding is private, however. Investors were encouraged by successes of nearby old-time locomotive routes. The Tioga Central Railroad made good money by hauling people from nowhere to nowhere, for the fun of it. The Susquehanna Steam Express carried full passenger cars between Binghamton and Syracuse. Dozens of other rail excursions covered the continent. Larger cities like Portland, Detroit, New Orleans and Seattle already had reinstalled antique trolleys. The first funding for Ithaca's rail enterprise began with average citizens. Ithacans bought small-denomination Trolley Bonds, redeemable when trolley service began, for tokens and special trolley events.

And we bought more than bonds. We bought a more reliable economy; we stimulated local production of good jobs. We learned that jobs can be more than a grim race for dollars, a scramble for products. Good jobs reward creativity, they promote stable communities and families, healthy food, clean air and water, friendships, and happy kids travelling gracefully to old age. We believed the trolleys could help us get there. We wanted them, and have them.    

 paul5glover@yahoo.com