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New York Newsday

June 9, 2002

Trolley Back on Track
After a decade of delays, Brooklyn railway rolling forward

By Joshua Robin
Staff Writer

 


New York Newsday

Joshua Robin
Staff Writer

 

The clang of the trolley, missing from New York's bustle for 42 years, could soon ring out again in Brooklyn, where trolley buffs are laying tracks along two waterfront streets in hopes that vintage cars will be rolling by late summer.

"It's gonna happen,” predicted Bob Diamond, president of the Brooklyn Historic Railway Association, who proposed the project a decade ago and leads the digging. "It's no longer a pipe dream. It's actually being laid out in pipe.”

Diamond, 42, has spent 10 years raising money and gaining hard-won city approval for his dream of restoring trolley service to Brooklyn. (That's the place, after all, where a certain baseball team was named for those who dodged the trolleys.)

Now, a few days a week, he and a handful of volunteers -- including a cartographer and a heavy-machine operator -- can be found on Reed Street in Red Hook, jackhammering asphalt and lugging rails. Their ultimate plan is to connect Red Hook on 1.6 miles of rail to a subway station in Downtown Brooklyn. The once-gritty waterfront neighborhood was cut off from the rest of the borough by the building of the Gowanus Expressway in 1941, a project of master builder Robert Moses.

Red Hook is now being gentrified, and the city has approved laying track on six blocks, starting near the site of a planned Fairway supermarket on the waterfront near Reed Street.

Diamond hopes to start the trolleys running occasionally once the first two blocks are done, which is contingent on his getting $50,000 promised by the City Council. The price of a trolley fare has not been determined.

It would take about $4 million more to reach Downtown Brooklyn. The last time trolleys thumped through New York, in 1960, the ride cost 15 cents, Diamond said -- or nothing if you hitched a ride on the back. But building them now costs about $260 per foot, even with volunteer labor.

"If we had the money, we could get to Borough Hall in about 18 months,” Diamond said.

The city transportation department seems open to adding the whole 1.6-mile route -- if Diamond can find funds elsewhere.

"Red Hook felt the brunt of Robert Moses more than any other ,” said Tom Cocola, the department's spokesman. "The Gowanus configuration has essentially ostracized Red Hook.”

Diamond hopes for $550,000 from a program to preserve landmarks sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. He already went through $238,000 in federal funds and about $250,000 in private donations.

The next step is to build tracks down Richards Street, to the mouth of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, where there are plans to build dual tracks, possibly on old rails long buried under asphalt.

The route would then continue through a tunnel under Atlantic Avenue that Diamond discovered in 1980 while he was on a break from college. Electric lines have yet to be installed, but all the equipment has been bought or acquired somehow.

In a city where waiting for a driver's license can take a year off your life, Diamond said "it took us almost 10 years to get all the permits and approvals.”

When not filling out paperwork, or pounding spikes, Diamond, who is trained as an electrical engineer, manages an apartment complex in New Jersey and hunts for used trolley equipment aided by a network of trolley aficionados around the country.

He already has scooped up 16 usable trolley cars, now wrapped in weather-resistant tarps and stored at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a former warehouse and in a lot near the start of the tracks.

One real find was a regal-looking car from 1897 that was used to ferry Norwegian royalty from Oslo to a nearby skiing mountain. That one will be saved for special occasions, Diamond said. "We're not going to use that one to haul people from Borough Hall,” he said.

The steepest expenditure of this project is insurance. The cheapest will be electricity. It only costs about $6 an hour to power a trolley, which coasts down streets after an initial jolt of energy. Cars normally hold about 100 people.

"The word is simple,” John Smatlak, a Los Angeles-based consultant with Railway Preservation Resources, said of street trolleys. "It's probably safe to say it's a very inexpensive thing to operate. I mean, you're just using up electricity.”

Residents of Red Hook see the trolley revival not as a touristy throwback, but as an alternative to the mercurial buses to Downtown Brooklyn.

"I have to work around their schedules,” said Leslie Chapman, a homemaker who has lived in Red Hook all her 25 years. She said she sometimes waits an hour for a bus.

Told of the trolley, she said: "That would be cute, if it gets me where I'm going.”

Although the tracks are being laid far from the housing projects where most people in Red Hook live, there seems to be no disappointment -- only patience. "It's something we need, because in any other community, you have a choice” of ways to get around, said Emma Broughton, 71, who has been called the mayor of Red Hook.

Diamond, a Brooklyn native with a beard as thick as a shaving brush, estimates he's plunked down about $75,000 from his own pocket. He's too young to have seen trolleys clatter down Church Avenue, where they ended their Brooklyn run in 1956, four years before the last city trolley clanged over the Queensboro Bridge. But Diamond is nevertheless charmed at the prospect of their return.

"It's really fun, seeing a piece of Brooklyn's history come back to life,” he said. "Some people like to plant roses and watch roses. I like planting trolley lines.”

Copyright 2002, Newsday, Inc.

 


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