Photo by Cameron Moix
Photo by Cameron Moix

Is Colorado Springs ready to join the dozens of American cities that have resurrected streetcars? It’s more likely than ever before.

The city and the Pikes Peak Historical Street Railway Foundation are working together to acquire two miles of railway right-of-way along North Nevada Avenue from the Burlington, Northern and Santa Fe Railroad. Sources confirm the railroad has given preliminary assent to the city’s offer — and the transaction should be completed soon.

Tracks were removed from the right-of-way decades ago. It extends on the east side of Nevada from a few blocks north of Fillmore Street to a few blocks south of Austin Bluffs Parkway. Plans call for the city to lease all or a portion of the right-of-way to the foundation, which would relocate from its present home on Steele Street to a new facility on Nevada.

If it works out, it will be the first phase of a streetcar project that, when completed, would link University Village, UCCS, the North End, Colorado College and downtown Colorado Springs. If built, it would be the product of decades of planning, a half-dozen false starts and a few lucky breaks.

The backstory

Thirty-four years ago, Morris Cafky and John Haney published a comprehensive history of the extensive street railway system that once graced the Pikes Peak region. By the early 1900s, more than 100 miles of streetcar lines linked the Springs, Manitou, Cheyenne Canyon and the Eastside.

The streetcar era began its long decline in the 1930s, and in Colorado Springs, the last streetcar headed for the barn in 1939.

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But local trolley buffs have never given up on the dream of reviving what was once discarded. In 1983, Cafky and Haney joined fellow aficionados to create the Pikes Peak Historical Street Railway Foundation.

The foundation acquired a home in 1994: the 1888 Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific roundhouse. With work space, access to a rail spur and several acres of storage yards, the foundation began obtaining equipment to build and operate a working street railway.

With the acquisition of restorable 1950s-era Philadelphia transit cars, the foundation got to work. Colorado Springs voters awarded the organization a streetcar franchise, and funds were raised for a feasibility study — but reality intervened. Hampered by regulatory and financial constraints, the project was indefinitely postponed as Colorado Springs worked through two recessions and a voter-mandated change in the form of government.

A new beginning

But now the project has new hope, thanks to efforts by the foundation and the city. Foundation president Dave Lippincott, a retired businessman with decades of experience in Colorado Springs, explained why the Nevada route was chosen.

“We believe that we can transport our equipment via rail to the new site,” he said. “North of Fillmore, the active line splits. The left fork connects to the North Nevada right-of-way. We would have to lay track to make the connection, but we have more than two miles of track stacked in our yard. We’d lay the new track, then move the cars and trucks.”

Still, nothing is set in stone, he said.

“Our plans are quite fluid at this stage,” he continued, “but we have high expectations of participating in the North Nevada Urban Renewal process, as we know the existence of a streetcar system there will attract developers who will purchase and improve properties along the corridor.”

That has been the experience of cities across the country. Unlike bus routes, street railways have substantial and measurable economic impacts upon corridor development.

“Rail has a permanence developers prefer and so do customers,” said Greg Roberts, foundation board member and streetcar restoration expert. “Many people who will ride a streetcar or light rail avoid buses. Streetcars are cleaner and, due to the lower friction of a steel wheel, more energy efficient than any tired vehicle.”

Financing the system

Federal transportation dollars have helped build virtually every new streetcar system in America, but such funding comes with extraordinary costs.

“We estimate that [using federal funding] increases overall system costs by 600 percent,” Lippincott said. “You also need to come up with matching funds, so it doesn’t make sense for Colorado Springs.”

The foundation has about $4.2 million in assets, including restorable streetcars, rail and a substantial spare parts inventory.

“We’ll need upwards of $4 million to $5 million to pay for moving our cars and equipment, building facilities and infrastructure to support streetcar operations, and ultimately laying track for a streetcar system operating to downtown Colorado Springs,” Lippincott said. “Funding will also be required to hire vendors to accomplish the heavy work needed to refurbish our PCC cars.”

PCC cars were designed by the President’s Conference Committee in 1929, a group made up of the biggest streetcar manufacturers.

The money doesn’t include paying for possible operational deficits or laying track for the entire system. The foundation wants to partner with Colorado Springs Utilities to construct the overhead electric lines to deliver power to the cars.

Even the most ardent supporters acknowledge trolleys are principally tools of economic development, best funded by a combination of private investment and special improvement district financing.

“The Legislature amended the laws governing special districts a couple of years ago and made creating them much more difficult,” said Robert Shonkwiler, who has served on the Urban Renewal Authority. “It’s probably best to go straight to the voters, and ask them for funding directly.”