What goes around sometimes comes around — like a streetcar.
A century ago, if you wanted to get somewhere in Lexington, you probably took a streetcar. And if you wanted to travel from Lexington to Paris, Georgetown, Nicholasville or Versailles, you took an express streetcar called an Interurban.
Like most American cities, Lexington abandoned its streetcar system in the 1930s. As roads were improved and more people bought automobiles, trolley tracks were pulled up or paved over. Motor buses took over the steadily declining demand for public transportation.
But streetcars are making a comeback — maybe even in Lexington.
The streetcar revival began a decade ago in Europe. Several American cities have built new streetcar systems, including Memphis; Little Rock, Ark.; Tacoma, Wash.; and, most notably, Portland, Ore. Portland's eight-mile loop, using modern European cars, has been key to economic development that has revitalized downtown. Cincinnati and Atlanta are among other cities making plans for new streetcar systems.
Lexington is taking some first steps.
The Lexington Transit Authority, which has seen ridership double in the past three years, is seeking matching funds for a $1.2 million federal grant to create the Downtown Circulator. Motorized trolleys would run every 10 minutes at lunchtime between Triangle and Thoroughbred parks, and in the evenings between downtown and the University of Kentucky campus.
A group of city, business and university officials is in the early stages of discussing more ambitious plans: A modern tram system in Lexington that could eventually include regional commuter rail.
"Nothing has been selected yet," said Leonard Heller, UK's vice president for commercialization and economic development and a member of the Greater Lexington Automated Guideway Transit Policy Board and Task Force. "We're kind of asking 'what ifs.'"
Initially, the group is looking at a tram system that would run on or above streets, or both, and connect the UK campus with downtown. Later phases could connect Transylvania University and extend up the Newtown Pike corridor to include the new campus of Bluegrass Community and Technical College and UK's Coldstream campus.
The group plans to add members from surrounding communities, talk with more transportation consultants and start seeking public involvement next year. "With President Obama, I think we'll have a really good opportunity to do something with rapid transit," Heller said.
Frank Harscher, an Atlanta-based transportation consultant, sees a lot of potential for streetcars and commuter rail here. He is a Lexington native and did the feasibility study for the streetcar system being planned in Atlanta.
Harscher envisions a downtown Lexington streetcar loop on Main and Vine streets, along with loops connecting the UK and Transylvania campuses. He also sees potential for commuter rail on the existing railroad line that runs from Nicholasville to Lexington and on up to the Kentucky Horse Park. A natural terminal location would be on South Broadway, where the Southern Railroad terminal once stood, he said.
Harscher said a good test could be done during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in September 2010 by using that Norfolk Southern rail line to move spectators between the Horse Park and downtown.
While the upfront costs of modern streetcar systems are huge — anywhere from $30 million to $50 million a mile — they can be cheaper and more efficient to operate in the long run, Harscher said.
Plus, he said, people just like them better than buses, and they are more willing to ride them. "It's a status thing, I guess," he said. "It's the kind of accessibility that will bring people downtown."
Down the road, a commuter rail line between Lexington and the Toyota plant near Georgetown could make sense, Harscher said. Others have suggested passenger rail linking Lexington with the airports in Louisville and Northern Kentucky.
If, as many people suspect, the Obama administration and Congress pour money into mass transit programs as a way to put people to work and stimulate the economy, those dollars will go to cities and regions that have plans ready to fund.
"If you have a plan in your pocket, you can make the next step happen when the opportunity arises," Harscher said.
Like a streetcar, you never know when opportunity might come around again.