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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Back to the (Sustainable) Future

Retro-chic meets clean technology in Downtown Kenosha’s electric streetcars

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You can climb aboard a shiny orange, maroon, green, red or yellow streetcar in Downtown Kenosha and, for just a dollar, take a trip back in time. But don’t be fooled: the city’s modest fleet of 63-year-old streetcars is more than a nostalgia novelty. They barely attract enough rail fans and niche tourists to justify the cost, yet the old electric technology that powers these environmentally clean and surprisingly quiet vehicles, certified “green” by Travel Green Wisconsin, has suddenly become cutting edge.Back to the (sustainable) future could be a motto for the city’s devoted streetcar advocates, including Teresa Pavelich, treasurer of the nonprofit Kenosha Streetcar Society (KSS).

“The estimated annual ridership peak was 60,000,” Pavelich said at a recent KSS board meeting. A decade ago fares started at a quarter. She went on to explain that, with the adult fare now at a dollar and some schedule changes, the average annual ridership is currently around 50,000. Not bad for a short line in a city the size of Kenosha (population: 100,150), but it’s not as high as KSS officers would like.

The city’s first electric railroad (terminus of the old Milwaukee-Racine-Kenosha line) began carrying passengers in 1912. Once renowned for manufacturing automobiles, Kenosha is striving to make its retro-chic streetcars iconic. Visitors now come from around the globe to ride them, says Brad Preston, streetcar mechanic for Kenosha Transit.

An unofficial ambassador for the city’s streetcars as well as a KSS board member, Preston says that more inquisitive streetcar enthusiasts contact him from abroad than from the immediate area. He recalls that he used to regularly swap information via email with a Slovak streetcar fan.

Preston laments that the city’s plan to expand the Downtown line, as recommended by a 2012 Lakota Group economic study, is on hold—primarily for political reasons. However, part of the infrastructure for a new westward line to the Uptown district, a plan stalled by the economic downturn of 2008, has already been completed.

Some people call them trolleys, but there’s an important technical difference: streetcars run on steel rails, while trolleys move on rubber wheels. Both vehicle types are powered directly via overhead wires. “I don’t care what you call them—as long as you ride them,” Preston declares with a smile.

Opened on June 17, 2000 (some 42 years after the last system in this region was dismantled), Kenosha’s streetcars follow a two-mile single-track loop. Beginning near the METRA commuter-rail station, two blocks west of Sheridan Road (Highway 32) at 54th Street, the cars travel south on 11th Avenue to 56th Street, near the Dinosaur Discovery Museum. Turning east on 56th Street, they cross Sheridan Road and pass the Visitor Information Center, moving safely along a grassy median.

Continuing east alongside the resurrected business district, they pass HarborPark as well as the Kenosha Public Museum, Southport Marina and Celebration Place, adjacent to Lake Michigan. After turning north for two blocks, they glide west on 54th Street, passing the Civil War Museum, City Hall and the McCarthy Transit Center (“streetcar barn”).

Kenosha’s streetcars, examples of the powerful President’s Conference Committee (PCC) model, have a top speed of 50 miles per hour, but they’re operated at much slower speeds. They were manufactured in Canada in 1951, using body shells and parts from the St. Louis Car Company. The Toronto Transit Commission ran these sturdy machines until 1995. Following their purchase by the city of Kenosha (using some state and federal funds), the cars were refurbished. Each one is painted so as to replicate a counterpart in another American city, such as Pittsburgh, where PCC streetcars were once operated. A streetcar that used to run in Philadelphia was donated to Kenosha’s fleet by a benefactor. Sixteen certified drivers take turns operating the cars.

In early September, streetcar enthusiasts can get a rare look inside Kenosha’s Transit Center, where the vehicles are maintained—with scrounged or improvised parts—and parked when off duty. Organized by KSS volunteers, the second annual Streetcar Day will be held on Saturday, Sept. 6. Pavelich and Preston hope the event draws crowds of kids and adults to ride the colorful streetcars.

For schedule, fees and other information, visit kenosha.org/departments/transportation or kenoshastreetcarsociety.org.

Also from Joe Crawford Mrazek