Greensboro weighs the cost-benefit of downtown trolley service

by Jordan Green

The West End Trolley is a rubber-tire trolley service operated by the Winston-Salem Transit Authority. A California-based transportation consulting firm is currently studying the feasibility of adding a rubber-tire trolley to the the Greensboro Transit Authority’s rolling stock (photo by Keith T. Barber)

As Greensboro city officials wait on the results of a study of the Greensboro Transit Authority by a California-based consulting firm, former mayor Keith Holliday is one of several residents advocating for a rubber-tire trolley to add to the city’s transportation options.

Holliday said the center city footprint is roughly 6 or 7 blocks long but in this day and age, people are unwilling or unable to walk from one end of downtown to the other. A trolley service would offer an easy way for residents and visitors to visit a number of places in the downtown area, he said.

“With a downtown trolley, you park your car one time and go to all the spots you want to go to,” Holliday said. “It has to be free, it can’t look like a bus and it has to be open air or at least has some type of historic London look where you can see in and see out.”

Holliday, who serves as president and CEO of the Carolina Theatre, said a rubber tire trolley would help ease the parking situation in the downtown area. Holliday acknowledged the trolley would be a boon to the Carolina Theatre as well as all downtown museums, theaters, restaurants and NewBridge Bank Park. In addition, a trolley would increase business to downtown establishments even in bad weather.

“When it’s raining, it impedes people from coming downtown,” Holliday said. “If I can park my car in a deck, get on the trolley and come downtown, I’ll do that in a heartbeat. It has a lot of pluses.”

Ed Wolverton, president and CEO of Downtown Greensboro Inc., said the addition of a rubber tire trolley would be an enlightened response to the changes downtown Greensboro has experienced in recent years.

“We continue to see growth in downtown’s residential base,” Wolverton said. “In the past six years, we’ve added more than 750 housing units. And over the past five years, we’ve seen a huge increase in the occupancy of city parking decks to the point that one deck is functionally full, another is 92 percent full, and another is 89 percent full. We’re running out of parking deck space.”

A citizens committee worked with Downtown Greensboro Inc. five years ago, and the group concluded that a rubber tire trolley service would not generate enough to cover operating expenses, Wolverton said. However, when the Greensboro Transit Authority hired Dan Boyle & Associates to look at its entire service to suggest potential changes, the idea of a downtown trolley resurfaced. Downtown Greensboro Inc. gathered 100 online surveys to assess residents’ opinions on transit service and submitted the raw data to the consulting firm.

“It’s an idea worth an examination,” Wolverton said. “The environment has changed in the past five years. There are a number of benefits trolleys can provide — access to more parts of downtown, decreasing traffic congestion, opening up more street parking, and providing a mass transit service to reduce overall air pollution and improve air quality.”

“We have full buildings, hence our parking decks have become full,” Wolverton continued. “Parking has become more scarce — a trolley is a great way to relieve some of that stress because people [wouldn’t] have to use their cars for relatively short commutes.”

The Winston-Salem Transit Authority, or WSTA, currently offers a rubber trolley service that runs Monday through Friday from 7:20 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The West End Trolley is a modern replica of the original Winston- Salem Street Railway, according to the WSTA website. The service runs every 20 minutes and for just 25 cents, passengers can take the trolley for midday errands, go to luncheon or business meetings, or meet friends, the WSTA website boasts. A 2006 study found that the West End Trolley carried 37 people a day and 9,205 a year.

Southeast Ward Winston-Salem Councilman Dan Besse said a rubber-tire trolley can satisfy existing demand for transportation services but doesn’t create additional demand or promote the redevelopment of an area like a fixed-rail system. Besse advocates a fixed-rail trolley system for both Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

“A fixed-rail system would be a boon to [both cities],” he said. “Our downtown areas are at the stage where a streetcar system would create additional value as far as encouraging the revitalization of central city areas.”

The original Winston Salem Street Railway, which was a fixed-rail trolley system, began running July 14, 1890 and provided electric service to the towns of Winston and Salem, according to the WSTA website.

District 4 Greensboro Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw said a rubber-tire trolley would be a fun thing to have but she’s concerned about the cost to the city. Rakestraw said she would like to see the results of the study by the consulting firm before expressing support one way or the other. At-large Greensboro Councilman Danny Thompson said his support of a downtown trolley would depend on whether it’s funded through private enterprise or with public dollars.

“We’re trying to look for $18 million in budget cuts,” Thompson said. “All these trinkets and baubles are nice, but you can’t buy everything in the store window. We’re going to have to be very austere and prudent and good stewards of the city’s treasury. While it could be nice, if there are some private dollars that want to come forward, I wouldn’t be opposed to it.”

Adam Fischer, Greensboro’s transportation director, said he’s taking a wait-and-see approach to the possibility of adding a rubbertire trolley to GTA’s rolling stock.

“I’d rather wait until I see what the data looks like,” Fischer said. “My gut feeling is [the trolley would have] more of a nighttime use — it would free up some spaces in the parking decks.”

Fischer identified commuters as a possible market for the downtown trolley.

“A lot of people who work downtown don’t use our transit service. They could use the service, so that might be a market for us,” he said.

The consultant’s report should be completed by late summer, and will be presented to the Greensboro City Council at that time, Fischer said.

Wolverton previously operated rubber-tire trolleys in Charlotte; Savannah, Ga.; and Wichita, Kans. He said designing the service is the key to maximizing overall efficiency. To serve the most people possible, the GTA would have to decide on its target market. If city officials decide to make it the trolley a daytime service primarily for downtown office workers, “headways,” which is the maximum amount of time riders wait between trolleys, would have to be less than 15 minutes.

However, if city officials decide to make the service a late afternoon and evening service, headways could be longer, Wolverton said.

Holliday suggested the trolley service run from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.

“Start with one trolley, and run it from April to October and see if takes hold, and maybe expand it through the winter,” Holliday said. “It needs to be pedestrian friendly and it needs to be a fun type of feeling that a family would enjoy.”

Holliday said a downtown trolley would be a perfect complement to Greensboro’s vibrant nightlife. He said the late-night security issues in downtown Greensboro that have made headlines in recent months have been somewhat overblown, adding that reports shouldn’t dissuade city leaders from investing in a vital transportation option for downtown visitors.

“We get hung up on security — there’s a fight going on at 2 a.m. — and we forget about the fanfare that’s going on between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m.,” Holliday said. “Folks are filling up their social bucket with the sense of community we have here. With a downtown trolley, the sky’s the limit.”