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Heritage Trolley Site
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Jim Graebner, Lomorado Group
Chairman, APTA Heritage Trolley Subcommittee


While there is no rigorous study of the broader economic and social benefits of a vintage trolley line, there has been research done in this area. The material below was prepared for the River Rail project in Little Rock, and represents 1998 data.

This overview is not representative of a comprehensive statistical research effort, but reflects "snapshot" interviews with individuals in several cities In addition to visits to several cities to personally observe the current operations of vintage trolley Systems (Portland, Dallas and Galveston), telephone interviews were also conducted with individuals in Galveston, Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans, Portland, San Jose, Tucson and Fort Collins. An attempt was made to acquire the unbiased impressions of the person contacted.

During the conduct of interviews, specific questions were raised to determine:

  • The direct impact of the vintage trolley system on business (increased sales, higher occupancy rates, tourism, etc.)

  • Disruption of vehicular flow

  • Impact of the overhead power distribution wire

  • Impact on commercial real estate

In-depth interviews were conducted with business leaders as well as transit system personnel.

Summary of Conclusions

Recently implemented vintage trolley systems are closely tied to revitalization and enhancement of commercial districts. Several additional conclusions can also be derived:

The collective business communities in the cities researched give vintage trolleys high marks for being positive influences in those cities.

The projects have been positive activities for both the city as a whole as well as the commercial interests directly affected.

Disruption due to construction has been minimal and more than overcome by the positive factors once operation began. There does not appear to be any significant impact on general traffic flow on those systems where mixed traffic is allowed.

The use of an overhead wire for electrical power is not perceived as having any negative impact on the aesthetic of the urban landscape. On the contrary, vintage trolley projects offer opportunities for improvement of the urban scene through lighting improvements, sidewalk amenities and other beautification.

Vintage trolley projects have been shaped by the involvement of the local business community, with individuals and associations playing major roles in planning, implementing and operating the systems.

Detailed Observations

Individuals from Galveston, Memphis, Dallas, New Orleans, Portland, San Jose, and Tucson stated that the impact of the local vintage trolley ranged from negligible to immense. In cases where the impact was considered extremely positive, the trolley was seen as an important component of overall downtown improvement efforts, and thus could not be given sole credit.

Impact on Business Activity

A vintage trolley's positive impact on business was substantial in many cities surveyed.

Representatives from both the Memphis Chamber of Commerce and the Memphis Center City Commission expressed elation with that city’s trolley project. The trolley was seen as taking a liability (the unsuccessful pedestrian mall) and turning it into a tremendous asset for the community. It was seen as the key activity in setting off a flurry of development downtown. The Director of the Center City Commission credited the trolley system as being responsible for a variety of developments ranging from a $100 million Peabody Place development to rehabilitation of many small storefronts, One of the projects related to the major development will provide corporate headquarters for an auto parts retail chain and bring 800 jobs with it. The Commission offers low interest loans to restore the facades of buildings. With the construction of the trolley more than twenty such loans have been made (with only three made prior to that). The Commission can also offer tax freezes to small businesses to assist with retaining business in the central city. Prior to the trolley project, two tax freezes had been arranged; since the coming of the trolley, nearly 15 have been awarded. One eighteen-story building near the trolley line had been vacant for 17 years, but will shortly open as a 202-unit apartment complex. Lunch traffic on the trolley street is also seen as a plus. As one interviewee said, a person can now go farther during lunchtime, thus both broadening eating choices and allowing more expanded shopping opportunities. The system also attracts a large number of visitors and Memphis residents who do not live or work downtown. The positive impact on weekend retailing was adjudged high.

In Portland, there is extremely high occupancy of business locations on the rail line. One of the executives of the downtown association expressed his belief that this was due in part to vehicular traffic being allowed to operate within the trolley system right-of-way. He said that, in that way cyclists, pedestrians, motorists and trolley riders all had direct access to local establishments. The manager of a Starbucks Coffee shop at Powell Square in Portland was effusive about the rail service. She claimed a definite direct positive impact on her business, with increased walk-in traffic almost every time the trolley or light rail car stopped nearby.

As mentioned several times, the trolley projects are not seen as being solely responsible for the positive business environment, perhaps with the exception of Memphis. In Portland, there was a great deal of effort focused on the downtown area, including sidewalk amenities and public places (squares, plazas, etc.) The combination of these factors has led to a true rejuvenation of the downtown environment that reflects a great deal of pride in the city's central area.

The same can be said of Galveston. The rejuvenation of The Strand was already underway, and the trolley project was an added facet of this jewel of restoration. Individual retailers who were contacted did not see much direct impact on their business from the trolley, but they were very favorable to the system and its general influence on the area’s aesthetics.

The McKinney Avenue line in Dallas engenders similar comments. Few of the restaurant owners contacted could point to measurable patronage increases on account of the trolley, yet all but one were very favorably disposed toward it.

The St. Charles and Riverfront Streetcar systems in New Orleans are unique in considering their impact on business. The St. Charles line has been in continuous operation since the 1830s. As such, it is considered as much a part of New Orleans as any other public or private institution. It serves residential areas and downtown, providing a link for residents and a way to tour the city for visitors. The Riverfront Streetcar was an idea born of the developers who made the most of the infrastructure created for the World’s Fair in New Orleans. The Convention Center and several private developments sprang from that international exposition.

The Riverfront Streetcar served to tie together those developments—it has been extended once since initial service began in 1988, and other extensions are currently being considered. Restoration of trolley service on Canal Street has subsequently been approved and is underway) Original ridership estimates of 2,000 per day for the extension proved to be 40% of the number actually recorded. Throughout its planning and implementation, the line was a partnership of public and private interests. Funds were contributed by private interests, and all of the fifteen organizations—public and private—were included in the process. One restaurant owner along the Riverfront claims that his business increased one third when the line opened. Other retailers in New Orleans have freely attributed their store location decision to the proximity of the trolley line.

In each of the systems investigated, it was the business community that was at the heart of the development of the vintage trolley. In some cases, the local community was a participant in the development of the system, and it continues to play some role in the operation of the trolley service. Community participation in the projects was varied and widespread, from private corporate contributions to assessment districts to providing volunteer labor.

Several of the systems were characterized as appealing to tourism ridership—such as the Galveston Island Trolley, the McKinney Avenue line in Dallas, the Waterfront Streetcar in Seattle, the San Jose Trolley, the Fort Collins Municipal Railway and the Old Pueblo Trolley in Tucson. Of these systems, most business owners judged the general impact on business minor. However, reflecting a common view, one of the major Dallas developers with a large hotel/retail/office complex having frontage on the street served by the trolley system felt that the system provided cohesiveness to the whole district. He also reported that his own favorite restaurant owner had told him that the diners took great pleasure in “watching the trolley go by.”

As mentioned, trolley systems were often part of a larger effort aimed at the revitalization of certain areas. Such was the case in Galveston, where emphasis was being placed by the entire community on the redevelopment of The Strand, an historical area with high tourism attraction levels. The trolley system in Tucson has been a key to the development of a number of small retail establishments and restaurants that might not have occurred without it. Systems in Memphis, Portland, and New Orleans are seen as being a local transportation alternative as well as attracting visitor ridership.

The impact of construction related to the systems’ implementation differed. In the case of Memphis, where an existing pedestrian mall was used for the Main Street Trolley, the impact was minimal. The Memphis Center City Commission coordinated an intensive information campaign during the construction period. In the case of the New Orleans Riverfront line, very little impact was apparent during construction because the line was built largely on an abandoned railroad right-of-way, and in the case of the St. Charles line, the construction of 1831 had preceded development of the area.

In Portland and San Jose, the vintage trolley uses the same trackage as the light rail line, and there was some impact.  An official with the Portland downtown business association said that some weaker businesses were lost during the construction phase, although he was quick to add that every business that had been lost was eventually replaced. In San Jose, a major participatory effort was undertaken to maximize access to local retailers during construction and minimize disruption, to the extent that construction was entirely shut down during the Christmas shopping season.

Impact on Vehicular Traffic Flow

None of the individuals interviewed mentioned any negative impacts on vehicular traffic flow. In Portland, the trolleys share the street with autos, trucks and buses, as in many vintage trolley cities. In some cases in Portland, the vehicular traffic is confined to one lane and some left turns are restricted, but there were no complaints about traffic slowdowns, and no one contacted there knew of or mentioned anything about trolley breakdowns. Indeed, they all felt the trolley vehicles were very reliable.

In Portland, where most on-street parking was removed from the streets on which the trolleys run, the lost spaces were more than compensated for by additional public parking lots that were also in the planning stages while the rail system was under development. Parking was not an issue in Memphis (where the former pedestrian mall had no parking), nor in New Orleans, Galveston, or Fort Collins. In San Jose, the rail development in the downtown was accompanied by a two-street semi-mall, and widened sidewalks and pedestrian areas caused the loss of two traffic lanes and one parking lane. However, compensating off-street capacity was designed and built concurrently, and the end result was a much more attractive and lively downtown business district.

Impact of Overhead Wire

None of the individuals interviewed felt that the visual impact of the overhead wire was an issue. In Portland and San Jose, the rail project afforded the opportunity to install attractive vintage street lighting, and that was implemented at the same time that wire was erected. Several cities have used the opportunity to combine functions and minimize the use of separate poles or posts in the business district. In San Jose and elsewhere, the Fire Department was involved in the design of the overhead to assure that it did not interfere with possible emergency situations.

Impact on Residential Areas

All of the individuals contacted were asked about any impacts on residential areas. Few were reported. In Galveston, one person living on the trolley line did not believe there was any impact on residential areas—positive or negative. Representatives of a Catholic school located on the Galveston line judged the impact to be zero, except for the opportunity for students to take group excursions. In Dallas, the manager of an apartment complex viewed the impact of the trolley as nonexistent and that it was not a factor in tenant location decisions.

On the other hand, classified advertisements in the local Galveston newspaper highlighted proximity to the trolley in describing residential property, as was the case in Memphis. Even though Galveston’s system is used predominantly by visitors to the island, there are a number of local riders who use the line for routine trips to the post office, grocery store or other business purposes.

In Portland, the vintage trolley was itself a mitigation measure to compensate for the impact of the city's light rail line on two historically significant residential areas. Historic trolleys had been considered previously as a possible linkage between the two historic districts, and the construction of the light rail line served as a catalyst to implement that idea.

In Fort Collins, representatives of the streetcar system expressed their belief that several home-buying decisions had been positively influenced by the presence of the trolley.

Impact on Commercial Real Estate

While it appears that the Portland and Memphis trolley systems have been factors in commercial real estate decisions, no quantifiable information exists. In Portland, there are claims that real estate prices near the line are higher, yet this equation also includes other improvements in the downtown area. In Memphis, because of the over-abundance of available property, real estate rates have only recently begun to be affected by the trolley line. (Recent anecdotal material suggests that the trolley is beginning to have an impact). As mentioned, the impression in Tucson is that the trolley’s proximity has attracted a number of small retail and restaurant establishments. And while there is not specific data, the impression is that the presence of the trolley in San Jose, Galveston and Dallas—by itself—has not had major impact on real estate prices. Proximity to these lines, as well as to the St. Charles line in New Orleans, is seen as a plus, but no quantifiable data is available.

Public Acceptance

An appropriate measure of community acceptance of vintage trolley Systems is found in the events subsequent to their initial opening. As has been mentioned, Memphis extended its line almost immediately, and is currently building a connecting link between downtown and the Medical Center. San Francisco is extending the “F” line along the Embarcadero to Fisherman's wharf, and will be adding nine rehabilitated cars from Milan to the roster. Portland’s success with the MAX light rail and the Vintage Trolley led to the construction of a streetcar circulator linking Portland State University, downtown, the Medical Center and burgeoning in town residential development along the route. New Orleans added the Riverfront line, and is now putting trolleys back on Canal Street. Even in Little Rock, where construction of the initial segment is just getting underway, it is planned to extend the line to serve the Clinton Presidential Library.

Ridership projections made before the implementation of vintage trolley systems are difficult to find. In Memphis, the projections were for about 3000 rides per day, and that is approximately the current experience. However, on major festival weekends, this figure has often been exceeded, by as much as 70%. No specific pre-implementation ridership projections are available for the San Francisco “F” line, but officials of the San Francisco Municipal Railway are very pleased with the line’s use, and are increasing the fleet significantly. As mentioned, the New Orleans Riverfront line exceeded preliminary estimates by 40%.

The vintage trolley lines presently in operation have become vital and accepted parts of their community, and have often achieved a “starring role”. The Memphis system is featured on much of the promotional material put out to attract visitors and conventions. New Orleans does the same thing in its promotional material. In San Francisco, the “F” line is a transportation attraction second only to the cable cars.

In short, vintage trolleys have become an integral part of the transportation system in the cities they serve, both for the use of residents and locals, as well as for visitors, tourists, and convention attendees from out of town.

The following table gives an overview of selected vintage trolley systems:




















New Orleans

4.5 mi.



Restor, Replica





1.5 mi.


ST, DE, C and O






1.3 mi.







San Francisco ("F" Line)

4.5 mi.






1995, 2000

San Jose

2.2 mi


DT, DE, C and O

Restor. Rehab.


Daily-3 mos. Wkend-9 mos.



3.0 mi
(3.6 in 2002)



Restor, Rehab.










Daily-7 mos. Wkend-3 mos.



5.0 mi.


DE, C, ST & DT

Rehab, Replica




Ft. Collins

.5 ml.





Wkend-6 mos.



1.0 ml.


O and C



Daily-9 mos.



2.5 mi.







Fort Smith

0.5 mi.





Daily-6 mos. Wkend -6 mos.



1.5 mi.








1.7 mi.







Tampa 2.3 mi 7 DE, DT, C, A/C Replica Yes Daily 2002


                ST: Single-truck                DT: Double-truck                DE: Double-end    SE: Single-end

                C Closed    O: Open                ADA: Accessibility compliant           A/C: Air conditioned

* St. Charles line not accessible, Riverfront and Canal lines accessible

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