As part of an $18 million project to study and improve parking and transportation downtown, funded by federal grants, the city of Middletown plans on conducting a comprehensive study to determine the feasibility and potential cost of implementing a streetcar system to provide easier access to businesses on Main Street.

The City Council has approved the allotment of funds needed to hire a contractor to conduct the study, which should begin early next year and be completed by 2011. If approved, the streetcar would run through Main Street and possibly extend to the University campus and the Middlesex Hospital.

According to the Middletown Parking and Traffic Study Final Report completed in August, streetcar construction costs about $7.6 million per track mile. Operating a streetcar costs about $600,000 annually.

“Today, budgetarily[sic], it’s a very tough time to consider something like this,” said Michiel J. Wackers, Deputy Director of Planning Conservation and Development for the City of Middletown. “But two, three, four years down the road, the economy might be different, we might have other things in the works that make the city look more economically sound, and this could be something that could really be considered.”

Based on the results of the study, the city will determine whether or not the streetcar is a project it would like to pursue and where it should run, were it implemented.

“It really comes down to dollars,” Wackers said. “If the city is only able to come up with ten million dollars, we’ll only be able to do one mile. I think it would be more successful if it takes people from downtown to Wesleyan to various parking facilities.”

Gathering funds for the streetcar is one of the main obstacles to the project. While the city currently has enough funding to study the feasibility of a streetcar, the majority of the remaining federal grant money has already been allotted to other projects.

“We’re trying to figure out if it has to sustain itself,” Wackers said. “If we’re only getting ten riders a day, that’s not going to generate enough [money]. Do we need to subsidize it? Can we get more federal dollars in the future? How open is the city to a referendum? A lot of questions are still out there.”

If Middletown is unable to find federal or state funding, the voters may be asked to decide whether it is worth funding the streetcar through taxes. Community members, however, are hopeful that taxpayer dollars will not be required to fund the streetcar.

“You have to look at the costs,” said Marie Kalita-Leary, Director of the Downtown Business District. “After the federal money earmarked for transit, it would be wonderful if the Transit Department could pick up [the expenses].”

While the City Council supports the concept of a streetcar, it is unlikely that construction will begin anytime in the near future. According to the Parking and Traffic Study Final Report, the streetcar project is a long-term goal, while short-term projects such as improving signage, replacing parking meters and creating more parking spaces will take immediate precedence.

“Are you going to see it in your tenure at Wesleyan? I don’t think so,” Wackers said. “When you come back for your alumni reunions, maybe.”

In the meantime, University students should keep their eyes open for other improvements that will make major downtown streets more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly. Improved crosswalks and crossing signals, bike lanes and bike stands are all short to mid-term projects that should be completed within two years.

“[The streetcar] is on our wish list,” Wackers said. “We’ll see where that leads us.”

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