- Associated Press - Sunday, March 1, 2015

GALVESTON, Texas (AP) - In Galveston’s heyday as a 19th-century financial center and booming port city, electric trolleys ran down the lushly planted esplanade on Broadway Boulevard, rolling past palm trees and stately Victorian homes.

The Great Storm of 1900, the hurricane that leveled Galveston and left 6,000 dead, altered the course of history for what once was Texas’ largest city. But the trolleys were running again before the bodies were cleared from the streets. More than a century later, Hurricane Ike put them out of service again.

Now the streetcars remain stationary and in disrepair, and the miles of trolley tracks that are visible in the pavement of this island city provide a haunting reminder of days gone by. But the trolleys soon could be zipping around the island again.

The Galveston City Council approved a plan to use federal and local funds to restore trolley service in the heart of Galveston.

The plan calls for adding rubber-tired trolleys to the rail system that will reach every tourist destination.

The cost for the city to rebuild the system would be about $202,000.

“The trolley system . would be the first step in developing a comprehensive transportation system on the island,” council member Craig Brown told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1Ds6ECb).

By 2017, riders would be able to park at the $6 million Galveston Downtown Intermodal Transportation Terminal, expected to be completed in August, and hop on one of the refurbished trolley cars built to resemble 1904 electric streetcars. The line would run by the Galveston Pleasure Pier and the Galvez Hotel on the seawall, through the historic Strand district and to the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Not everyone is on board with the idea.

“I understand the romantic attraction of the trolley, but I also understand that when it ran before it ran at a deficit, and to me, that raises my eyebrows,” said council member Norman Pappous, who cast the lone vote Thursday against resuming the service.

If the council votes to revive the trolley line, it would join cities across the country that are turning to streetcars for transportation and to enhance tourism, said John Carrara, senior vice president for the Goodman Corp., which developed the trolley plan. Atlanta recently began streetcar service along a 2.7-mile loop between the King Historical District and the downtown/Centennial Olympic Park corridor, and Tucson, Ariz., launched a trolley. New ones are also planned for Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Charlotte, N.C., and Tempe, Ariz.

Galveston’s original “street railway” system debuted in February 1866, and it featured mules in the middle of tracks pulling cars containing a driver and passengers, according to a brief history published in The Islander magazine.

An extensive electric trolley system carried riders all across the island starting in the late 19th century. The service resumed after the 1900 hurricane, continuing until 1938. But these tracks eventually were torn up to make way for buses and automobiles.

Trolleys returned in 1988 along 6.8 miles of new track, a shadow of the original system, but not without controversy.

Galveston City Manager Brian Maxwell recalled that their return was strongly opposed by some. “The trolleys have been a divisive discussion since their very inception,” Maxwell said.

The trolleys proved popular initially, with ridership peaking in 1994 at 112,000 riders annually, according to a Goodman Corp. report. That figure dwindled as the aging equipment was beset with mechanical problems.

Hurricane Ike struck in September 2008, rolling 5 feet of salt water into the trolley barn and damaging the four fixed-rail trolleys. The storm surge mangled switches, electrical devices and trolley tracks as well.

More than $4 million in federal disaster funds and insurance money quickly became available to restore the trolley system, but successive city councils were leery of taking on a system that never paid for itself.

Opposition to fixing the trolley line remained strong and included Mayor Jim Yarbrough before his election last year. Since then he’s changed his mind.

“For whatever reason, we talked about it for six and a half years and the sands of the hour glass are running out on these federal funds,” he said.

Yarbrough was won over by the realization that if the city jettisoned the trolley system, it would have to repay more than $7 million in federal funds used to build and expand the most recent trolley. Maxwell said the price tag could be as high as $11 million if the cost of tearing up the tracks were included. Yarbrough said that the trolleys could lose a lot of money for many years before losses added up to $7 million.

Even Pappous, the most skeptical council member, concedes that the council is likely to approve rebuilding the trolley line. But he said, “I think, based on history, this is going to be a money-loser . I don’t think the general fund should pay for it.”

The city council-appointed Galveston Park Board, which has its own budget, on Monday answered Pappous’ call by voting unanimously to consider financing up to $200,000 of any operating deficit run by the trolley line.

Park Board Chairman Melvin Williams said he initially opposed reviving the trolleys, but was persuaded after reviewing details of the plan.

Meanwhile, an informal group of about a dozen businessmen and residents recently formed to support the trolleys and is looking into forming a nonprofit that would create an endowment to provide funding.

Barry Goodman, president of the Goodman Corp., wrote Maxwell that with help from the “private advocacy group,” the goal would be to reduce the cost from the city general fund to zero.

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Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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