Saturday, December 5, 2009

A Real Long Shot: The Barrie Streetcar

Everyone's got fantasies. Maybe you want to be Emperor of Earth, or to marry the person of your dreams, or if you're Zefram Cochrane, to retire to a tropical island filled with naked women. They're all totally understandable desires, but they're not likely to happen, either - look at divorce rates today, for one. Personally, I wouldn't mind going to space, and if I stay alive long enough and have enough money in the bank, so long as Virgin Galactic lives up to its promises that one's actually within the realm of possibility.

In the end, I'd say some of the most compelling dreams are the ones you know can't be realized barring extraordinary intervention. I've got one myself, and all I'd have to do to realize it is win a few hundred million (preferably a few billion) dollars in the lottery. If that happened, and I got bored of financing climate change mitigation projects or other worthies, I'd like to build a streetcar system in my old hometown, Barrie.

Barrie's Five Points intersection. Just imagine tracks on the street here, and wires overhead. And people on the sidewalks.

I'll admit that on the face of it, the idea of a streetcar system in Barrie seems rather ridiculous. Forty years ago, had the money and political will been in place, it might have made more sense, but Barrie is no longer the small, relatively centralized community it was back then. No, today it's a hub of its own, with fattened spokes of suburbs stretching out in all directions, a city of 30,000 with suburbs for 100,000 more stapled on at the edges. Only sheer distance has thus far prevented it from being reduced to an appendage of Toronto. This is a city that, from all appearances, desperately wants to be Mississauga when it grows up.

Nevertheless, while running a modest streetcar system in Barrie seems beyond the pale, it's not unthinkable, either. Kenosha, Wisconsin, a suburban outpost of Chicago and itself smaller than Barrie, has done it already. For nearly ten years now, Kenosha Transit has been operating a 2.7 kilometer streetcar line with five refurbished ex-Toronto Transit Commission PCC streetcars, Art Deco streamliners that still loom large in the imagination. It connects Kenosha's Metra commuter rail station with downtown Kenosha and HarborPark, a transit-oriented development area, and has been sufficiently successful that there's a possibility of further expansion down the line.

Regardless of Barrie's increasingly suburban focus, the downtown core does have potential. Over the last ten years, seemingly half a dozen condos have gone up on what was once empty land, and Allandale Station, left shuttered and silent since the removal of CN's lakeshore railway in 1996, is on track to once again become the northern terminus of GO Transit's Barrie line as early as 2011. I believe that the ingredients are there for downtown Barrie to truly thrive, to be a destination in its own right, to offer the same kind of urban, comfortable, walkable living that can be found in Toronto and elsewhere.

Could it be done, reasonably? From what I understand, Kenosha's streetcar line cost only $4 million to build. As for vehicles, Toronto's streets will see the new Flexity Outlook streetcars rolling along them in a few years. The current CLRVs are thirty years old and will be phased out once the new rolling stock arrives over the course of the next decade. Barrie probably wouldn't have to pay too much to rescue a couple of Canadian Light Rail Vehicles that would otherwise end up in the scrapheap. Five or so would probably be sufficient for a modest line similar to Kenosha's.

A TTC streetcar rolls west along its right-of-way on the Queensway, moving with the dawn. Now just imagine it in blue and white.

What I envision is a route confined to downtown Barrie, once of the few parts of the city where I think dense transit-oriented lifestyle could be credible - a looping downtown circulator, like Kenosha's system or the system currently under consideration in Boise, Idaho. It would begin and end at a loop adjacent to Allandale GO Station, off Lakeshore Drive east of Tiffin Street, and would proceed west and north either along Lakeshore Drive itself or in a right-of-way to the immediate west of the roadway, and would be the only double-tracked portion of the line. The route would then turn northwest along Toronto Street to Dunlop Street West, the indisputable "main drag" of downtown Barrie.

Turning east on Dunlop, the route passes close by the Barrie Bus Terminal, Barrie Transit's central hub and the prime arrival point for intercity coaches. It would continue past the Five Points intersection and the city's war memorial at Fred Grant Square until reaching the intersection of Dunlop, Lakeshore, and Mulcaster, at which point it would turn south and rejoin Lakeshore Drive. This is the only part of the line that I'm not entirely sure could be feasibly engineered - it's a fair hill going south from Dunlop here, but not a big one. Streetcars in Toronto regularly climb and descend worse hills, like where Bathurst Street climbs over the Lake Iroquois shoreline, but not in revenue service.

From there, Barrie's streetcars would pass by Heritage Park, the Spirit Catcher, and the northern extents of the city marina before rejoining the existing Lakeshore Drive track and completing the loop south to Allandale GO. The total length of this route, figured with the Gmaps Pedometer, is 3.2 kilometers - just short of two miles.

So that's my fantastic dream - to go to my hometown again and leave streetcars running behind. Is the project itself feasible? I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be, so long as there was sufficient force behind it. A better question is, is it worthwhile? I don't know, really. It's been more than eight years since I lived in Barrie, and the city's changed a lot since 2001. If by "worthwhile" you mean "would it be anything other than a money pit" then I, personally, think the answer is no. A Barrie streetcar, in my mind, would be more than anything else a symbol of dedication by the city's leaders to move away from the focus on suburban sprawl that's taken Barrie to where it is today.

I know there are some people who think streetcars are relics of the past. I prefer to believe that they're commitments to the future.

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