by Daniel Schere

Twin City halts downtown trolley

Winston-Salem will say goodbye to an active part of its transportation history very soon. The West End Trolley is scheduled to cease operations beginning July 21 after the city council voted to end the service at its June 16 meeting as part of budget negotiations.

In an email to City Manager Lee Garrity June 12, Winston Salem Transit Authority director Art Barnes suggested conducting a public hearing on July 15, with the 21 st being the day service would end. WSTA defines a major service reduction as “any reduction in service miles or hours exceeding 15 percent of the total service miles or hours provided.” WSTA’s policy also states that these types of changes must be made public 30 days prior to a public hearing.

The original Trolley began running as a streetcar in 1890 and connected the towns of Winston and Salem. The current trolley is a replica that encircles downtown and has been running since the 1980s.

Councilman Robert Clark had pushed for the phasing out of the trolley for some time, but it was only recently that other council members agreed. Clark said he thought it was a common sense measure because the trolley does not serve the areas of the city that have the greatest need for a bus. He said on some days, the trolley was empty.

“If you worked at the Wells Fargo tower, it’s not that far to walk to City Hall, or the Hall of Justice. I mean our downtown’s only five or six blocks,” Clark said.

According to the budget, the elimination of the service will save about $116,000, which, by an 8-1 vote will be put into the larger public transit fund. Clark was the sole council member who was not in favor of this.

“I voted against that because I don’t like to do budgeting on the spur the moment,” he said. “If we have some savings then I think you need to go back and look at all your needs.”

Clark said he would have preferred to use the money for repairing sidewalks and streets with potholes that resulted from winter storms this year.

Councilman Dan Besse said the vote was necessary because of the study being conducted of WSTA’s routes, which will be used to overhaul the system. The resource limits are being determined by mileage and costs to the system.

“That’s why it was important to leave the saved cost of eliminating the West End trolley within the transit system’s resources,” Besse said. “Otherwise, we’d have been cherry-picking out one of the most obvious efficiencies and not re-investing it as is needed within the bus system. That’s why Robert’s idea of shifting that money over to another program altogether was a bad idea.”

Besse envisions the trolley being restored to its original streetcar form, as opposed to a bus designed to look like a streetcar.

He added that he agrees with Clark that the trolley did not operate in a traditional “hub and spoke” model that most transit systems operate on, where bus or rail lines extend outward from the city center to the surrounding communities.

“It was intended to provide a way for people who were already in the downtown area to get around,” he said while adding that the trolley did not serve the role of a commuter bus.

Ultimately Besse does not think the elimination of the trolley will detract from the city’s heritage.

“We all understood that was symbolic,“ he said. “Robert brought that up when he did, in my opinion because of political consideration of making a statement against the trolley.”

Besse said he thinks one reason for the low ridership is the fact that it does not run on fixed tracks and therefore people do not know where it’s going.

“The kind of problem that you see here that made the trolley-bus so ineffective as a circulator is exactly why, for that kind of function, you need a rail service,” he said. “That’s something on which Robert and I disagree.

I don’t think he understands the importance of transit as a stability tool.”

Besse, who tends to favor rail, acknowledged the difficulty in receiving cooperation from three different levels of government and said he thinks a change in state leadership will need to happen before any rail projects can begin.

“Creating new rail systems really requires a cooperative effort from the local, state and national levels,” he said. “When you’re talking about building new roads and highways, most of the money comes from the state and federal levels.”

Besse remains optimistic about the ongoing plans for Winston-Salem’s historic Union Station building located at 300 Martin Luther King Jr., Drive. He envisions the building eventually becoming a transit hub that will help bring economic activity to East Winston. He said bus improvements are the immediate need.

“People shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that between rail and bus it’s either or,“ he said.

Winston Salem Transit Authority director Art Barnes said the trolley has been the lowest revenue-producing route of all. He said a recommendation was made to end the service after he met with representatives from Wells Fargo, which provides a subsidy of roughly 50 percent to keep the trolley running.

The actual trolley is not currently in use due to mechanical issues, and Barnes said it will likely not be put in a museum when the service ends.

“There’s a market for those vehicles,” he said. “After it goes out of use it’s taken to the city, and the city will auction it off.”

Barnes also mentioned that the trolley contained higher steps and did not have the amount of wheelchair accessibility regular buses have, which has posed challenges for handicapped passengers.

He said he would not be opposed to reinstating the service at some point, if there is a need.

“Hopefully one day we’ll get to the place where there’s adequate demand in terms of traffic going downtown to different places that would justify a return,” he said. !