Clang, Clang, Clang,
Comes the Trolley!
Story by Lisa Kay Tate
The first streetcar may be rolling down the tracks as early as February, but El Pasoans will have to wait several more months before catching a ride on the city’s new 4.8-mile trolley system.
For more than two years, city residents and business owners have endured detours, street closings and closed-off lanes while roadways were torn up and tracks laid for the $100 million project.
Six fully restored and renovated trolleys eventually will carry passengers along two loops, with 27 stops, powered by overhead electric lines. The initial trolley runs will be used to test the new tracks.
“The first streetcar should be on the tracks by February,” said Raymond L. Telles, executive director of the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority, the agency in charge of the project. “But at this time Sun Metro will be doing a ‘burn-in.’ This is where the train will run for some time, so they can conduct the series of tests needed to make sure everything runs safely and as it should.”
Telles said the testing would mostly likely be done at night when other street traffic is less intense.
Passengers should be able to ride the streetcars by later in the year. Once this first streetcar is ready, he said, the next ones should follow fairly quickly. Once in place, the trolleys will be operated by Sun Metro. The system will consist of a Downtown Loop, running along Santa Fe, Franklin, Kansas and Father Rahm streets; and an Uptown Loop along Franklin, Stanton, Baltimore, Glory Road and Oregon street.
“The route will connect the international bridges, retail areas, government buildings, convention center and downtown ballpark with the medical center, University of Texas at El Paso and several historic neighborhoods,” Sun Metro states in its official description of the routes.
The beginning and end point for both streetcar routes will be at the streetcars’ Maintenance and Storage Facility on Santa Fe and Fourth Street, next to Sun Metro’s Downtown Transfer Center.
“I would say the infrastructure will be 95 to 98 percent completed by the end of the year,” Telles said.
The trolleys themselves will be nine completely restored Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC street cars), the same cars that ran from the 1950s to the 1970s. The vehicles are currently being restored at the Brookville Equipment Corporation in Pennsylvania.
“These were the types of vehicles that were running in 1974 when the trolleys stopped running,” Telles said. “Three of them will be painted like the cars in the 1950s, three like the 1960s, and three like the cars in the 1970s.”
One vehicle in particular, he said should be extremely popular, and will include decal replicas of the artwork done by late El Paso artist Jose Cisneros, who once helped paint the streetcars. That car also will feature the original seating around the edge of the interior, while the other cars will include updated front-facing seats.
“There is more to restoring these streetcars than you would think,” Telles said. “We’re putting in a transit system that has the look and feel of the past with a modern system.”
Bringing back the past
Telles said streetcars have been a large part of El Paso’s heritage, starting from mule-driven cars at the turn of the last century to electric-run trolleys that continued into the early 1970s.
El Paso Electric was first known as El Paso Electric Railway Company, Telles noted. According to the company’s history, El Paso Electric’s “primary business consisted of providing transportation via mule-drawn streetcars, which were replaced in 1902 with electric streetcars.” The company removed the “Railway” from its name in 1925.
“There were routes all over town,” Telles said, but the flexibility offered by modern-day buses and rubber tires made the electric trolleys less appealing, although several streetcars were still in use until 1974. Even the trolley’s best-known route, connecting El Paso and Juárez, drew complaints from Juárez businesses that saw the trolleys as hurting commerce on their side of the border by taking shoppers across the river. That route was canceled in the early 1970s.
Even when the streetcars were long gone, the memories and connections to them remained. Mandy the Mule was a well-loved image of the city’s mule-drawn trolley car heritage. A restored mule car and a replica of Mandy were displayed in downtown El Paso for many years, first at San Jacinto Plaza, then at Cleveland Square. In the 1990s, the El Paso - Juarez Trolley Co. took residents and tourists to Juarez, the Mission Trail and other locations in rubber-tired buses designed after historic streetcars.
HiGH tech for vintage cars
With a new transfer center and track system, Sun Metro is getting ready for this addition, with a whole new division dedicated to the streetcars.
Carl Jackson serves as Sun Metro’s Assistant Director in charge of Streetcar Operations. He said it takes a different set of skills and workforce to help create and work with any new rail system, and said those working with the operations at Sun Metro, as well as the public, are looking forward to the challenge.
“Everyone I’ve talked to has been very excited,” he said. “The staff here is eager to see everything come together.”
He said the staff right now has just a couple of key employees, and is just starting to grow. They are looking at hiring more employees at various levels soon.
The new trolley system is already receiving attention from streetcar and rail enthusiasts nationwide, he added.
“There’s going to be a huge amount of tourism from this,” Jackson said. “I’m hoping it will spur even more Downtown businesses and groups to encourage it as well.”
Jackson, a third-generation railroad and public transportation specialist who grew up in New York where rail systems are plentiful, has been a fan of trolleys and railroads since he was as a kid. He said working with the new streetcar system has been a “wonderful” experience that he looks forward to being a part of every morning.
“Every young kid looking at a model train set would feel the same way,” he said. “It takes me to a time when I was little, and was first fascinated by this.”
Getting to see some of the details the public may not see, Jackson added, such as the installation of the switching machines, is something which any railroad enthusiast would envy.
Jackson said it is a testament to the workmanship and design of these original cars that upgrading them for today’s world with Wi-Fi and air conditioning was not a difficult undertaking.
“We’re going to get to enjoy the design equipped with modern technology the original designers never dreamed of,” he said. “There will be a lot of 21st century features in an early 20th century vehicle.”
Jackson said those who take advantage of Sun Metro’s regular transportation passes will be able to use them on the streetcars as well, and the fees should be the same as bus fees.
Jackson said the streetcars should encourage commercial development along the route.
“This is a big deal for developers,” he said. “They know once these tracks go into the ground they are not going anywhere.”
“I would like to see similar systems start up around the city,” Jackson said, adding it would be great for El Paso’s historic streetcars to be more and more a part of the city’s transportation offerings.
Once the cars are up and running, Jackson said, he hopes to work with high school and college students to help them learn the technology and mechanics uniquely related to this system.
“My wish is for there to be an intern system for those aspiring to learn a different technology entirely new to the area.”
Jackson, who has worked with rail systems for three decades, said the best part about working in Streetcar Operations has been coming to El Paso.
“I’ve worked with projects in cities such as Seattle, Kansas City, Portland and Atlanta,” he said. “El Paso has some of the friendliest and nicest people I have ever met.”
He hopes to repay that hospitality by helping create a worthy new attraction and mode of transportation to the city.
“It is wonderful to be in a position where I’ve been able to see streetcars in the past, and to be able to be part of bringing them back for people today,” Jackson said. “It is sort of like paying it forward.”
Campaigning for trolleys
Among the people who led the campaign to bring back the trolleys, Telles said, were former city council members Steve Ortega and Ted Houghton.
Ortega said the idea for the streetcars’ return to El Paso dates back to at least 2011 when city representatives were looking for new ways to incorporate the city’s history into its current day appeal.
“We had put together a presentation on El Paso’s history for the new city council members,” he said.
The presentation was created with the help of Nestor Valencia, who had worked as Director of Planning for the City of El Paso.
“We talked about one of the projects the city needed to look at, and one of them was the streetcars,” Ortega said. “I learned the streetcars ran from 1902 to 1974. In its heyday, you could travel all over the city in the streetcars.”
The first step was to think about where the new streetcars would be able to go first, should they return to the city. One of the destinations would cover the Downtown area to accommodate the future ballpark, the Arts and Museum districts, as well as cultural, historic and government buildings. Another area would stretch towards UTEP and its nearby hospitals.
The cost was estimated at about $100 million. Houghton was exceptionally instrumental in the financing, acquiring funding from the Texas Department of Transportation.
“Houghton really pulled through, and the following year he secured the $100 million,” Ortega said. “If there is any one person who really deserved credit for the street cars, it is Ted Houghton.”
The streetcar project has involved several government agencies, at the state, regional and city level. The project uses funding from the Texas Department of Transportation, the Camino Real Regional Mobility Department is managing the construction and the City of El Paso will maintain the routes.
Ortega said others who deserve credit in their support and efforts to see the street cars return to the area have included other council members at the time such as Cortney Niland, former City Manager Joyce Wilson, and Telles.
Ortega also clarified the streetcars are not just a “transportation project,” but rather a “transit oriented development project.”
This involves not only the increased options in public transportation, but improving the quality of life in the surrounding vicinity.
Ortega said the potential is there for more “vertical development” of long forgotten undeveloped sites Downtown and other sustainable growth along and near the tracks.
“This is already seen as a positive for development in the area,” Ortega said. “I think it will set a spark in the interest in the development of downtown. “
He noted, like all projects, there are those skeptical of the success of the streetcars, but he recalls similar worries were expressed toward the other success stories including the downtown ballpark and the renovation of the Plaza Theatre.
Ortega said the effects are already evident. He said the fact that the “future streetcar line” is listed as a factor in several residential and business listings, as well as with hotels such as the downtown Double Tree, are indicators that the community, overall, wants to see the streetcars in action.
“I think you can argue this project has already been a success,” he said.
Ortega hopes these first tracks are only the beginning.
“My hope is we don’t stop here,” he said. “I would like to see the tracks extend to the Texas-Alameda Corridor in the future.”
The streetcar, he feels, is one of the signs El Paso is experiencing a renaissance of revitalization and growth, especially in the historic Downtown area. Ortega looks forward to seeing the inspiration the new streetcar route will create with others.
“This is a very exciting time for the entire community,” he said. “We’re using a hallmark of the past to chart our way into the future.”
The community connection
Telles said the streetcar project has been like no other project they have done, including the community response.
People have shared memories of when their own father or grandfather worked as a streetcar driver, or when their parents and grandparents took them on a trip Downtown on the streetcars. Many can’t wait to do the same with their own families.
“People have had such a personal connection to this project,” he said. “Anyone who has lived here long enough has some recollection of the streetcars.”
The return of the trolleys to El Paso streets hasn’t been completely smooth, as the city fell prey to a phishing scam in 2016 that directed around $3 million, most of which was intended for the streetcar project, to fraudulent bank accounts. The FBI was able to recover at least $2 million of the stolen funds.
Some local businesses were affected by the construction, as well.
Anne Mitchell, owner of So El Paso, which features products by El Paso area artists and similar lines, said the installation of the tracks hurt her Stanton Street shop’s business during the first quarter of 2017.
“The original timeline to start construction was after Thanksgiving 2016. That would have been disastrous for our retail store,” Mitchell said. “They were kind enough to move it to Jan. 2 and that helped, but we did have a lot of days where customers could not physically get into our parking lot.”
Mitchell’s store even rewarded visitors with a bag of “Trolley Car Caramel Corn” with their purchases when they were able to make it around the construction to the store. She feels time will tell if the streetcar is beneficial to her business.
“I am hoping and praying it will all be worth it but we won’t know for a year or so,” she said.
El Paso artist Hal Marcus, whose gallery is on Oregon across from his house, said the gallery is a “survivor” of the construction.
“There were times these past two years that it was incredibly difficult to manage business due to our street been torn up for such a long time,” Marcus said. “However, because we have loyal customers and we also do a lot of work from our website, we were able to survive.”
He said he firmly believes the streetcar will be good for business, but the construction wasn’t without its victims.
“Jimmy’s Grocery Store down the street ... they had been there forever ... did not survive the construction and they had to close,” he said. “This was very sad for the neighborhood.”
He said the store won’t be vacant for long, as a new bakery and café, Savage Goods, will be opening in a couple of months at the same location on the corner of Nevada and Oregon. He said that’s good news for both Sunset Heights and the passengers on the streetcar.
Savage Goods owner Michelle Savage, who had been offering rustic baked goods at weekend Farmer’s Markets, said everyone at the bakery is looking forward to their first “brick and mortar” location being on the streetcar route.
“We’re really excited to open our cafe on the streetcar route; it’s such a great way to connect the surrounding neighborhoods with downtown,” Savage said. “We’re also really looking forward to the opportunities it will give us to collaborate with other businesses along the route.”
Marcus said he feels those working with the project, and the Sunset Heights area where he runs his gallery, will benefit each other.
“Yes, we believe in the streetcar project and the street car project believes in us ... so it’s all good,” he said. “My home and my gallery are across the street from each other and the streetcar will stop right in front of our home. So we will just connect the dots and reap the rewards! And we will all live happily ever after.”
Telles said the project has made community relations a priority.
“We knocked on doors with an extensive outreach program,” he said. “We told them when the project was in the beginning stages we were going to be tearing up some streets. We gave them a timeline of when and for how long we would be doing it. I’m happy to say most of the timelines have been met, and others were completed ahead of schedule.”
Martin Bartlett of Barracuda Public Relations, which has been in charge of the community engagement efforts for the project, said “One of the things we realize is when there is going a be a project that involves running a rail down the middle of the street, people are going to be inconvenienced. The best thing we can do as an antidote to that inconvenience is to provide information.”
Bartlett said despite the project being near completion, there is still some work to be done on the streets, and they encourage people with questions or concerns to call (844) 252-RAIL.
“Our strategy is to make sure there is always an open line of communication,” he said.
Telles said he has enjoyed being able to be part of seeing this project near its completion, especially getting to know how many area residents carry a connection to the cars.
‘This isn’t like building a toll way or other street project,” he said. “This project has touched people in such a personal way, and I have gotten to hear some great stories. You just don’t get that kind of interaction with other projects.”
Copyright 2017 by Cristo Rey Communications