When I was a kid, everybody wanted a train set, so I can relate to Ron Linton, Tim Conlon and their trolley dreams.
You could still see steam engines when I was little, but it was the new "streamliners" that most kids craved. Streamliners and trolleys.
We loved the silver, streamlined diesels because they were what we'd now call high tech or state of the art -- the closest thing to a space ship I'd seen before a 1949 Studebaker came down the blacktop.
Steam engines were passe' -- old-fashioned even then -- but trolleys were neat. Trolleys weren't as intimidating as steam engines. Rather than bellow and belch steam, trolleys clanked and hissed along their wires, working their way up to a modest hum at top speed. When they weren't humming, an energetic 8-year-old on a bicycle could keep up with the Charles City & Western's interurbans.
I was about that age when the Charlie Western stopped hauling passengers and sent its trolleys to the big railroad in the sky, where they shuttle back and forth forever between memory and myth.
Conlon and Linton want to add a couple more stops to that trolley route.
Linton thinks trolleys ought to run from Georgetown to Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom. Conlon wants to build tracks all the way to Dulles airport from Tysons Corner, down the median strip of the access road.
Though most men with such fantasies settle for a brass model of a Pacific Electric car on their desks or a train layout in their basements, these two trolley dreams might just come true.
In the next few months, teams of engineers, accountants and consultants will spend $500,000 trying to figure out whether trolleys are a realistic alternative to automobiles in these two congested corridors.
Both trolley backers believe a light rail system -- as trolleys are known in the vernacular of the federal Urban Mass Transit Administration -- could be built and operated with private funds. But this is Washington, so both have turned to the federal government for money to study the feasibility of their projects. UMTA has put a quarter-million dollars into each study.
Linton, a lobbyist by trade, is part-time president of the Georgetown & Foggy Bottom Trolley Co. His is a paper railroad, nonprofit by design, unlike the old-time trolleys, which couldn't make a buck when they tried. Since 1977 he's been pushing for a federal study of the route. After enough delays to make an old-time conductor cry, the study is now being performed by Bechtel, the construction giant. The consultants are working with the G & FBT, whose board includes representatives of civic groups that are dubious about the desirability -- to say nothing of feasibility -- of the trolley.
Conlon, a real estate developer, heads Northern Virginia Light Rail Inc., known as NOVA Rail. He contends a profit-making company could build a trolley line from Tysons Corner to Dulles if the government would give it the right-of-way. The Dulles Access Road was designed for a possible Metro line down the median, but there's not enough money to complete the present Metro plans, let alone build more miles of costly high-speed rail.
A trolley line could be built for a fraction of the cost of a Dulles Metro, using lighter, cheaper tracks, modest stations and one- or two-car trains. Conlon's idea is to organize property owners along the Dulles road -- he happens to be one of them -- to finance the railroad.
He's not the first to recommend a Dulles trolley and has antagonized other advocates by suggesting that only his proposal will work. While the Georgetown trolleyers spent years pushing for a feasibility study, Conlon contends the study of the Dulles route will only delay the project, perhaps fatally. He wants to build it right now, while development of office and commercial property along the corridor is beginning to boom.
Rep. Frank Wolf is the politician most involved in the Dulles route. His office said the Department of Transportation is preparing to pick a consultant who will study not only a trolley route, but also such exotic alternatives as a monorail and a magnetic levitation train that would float on a magnetic field.
The Dulles rail study will be done in conjunction with a panel of local residents in much the same way that Linton's group is working with the consultants on the Georgetown project.
Local government officials have been cautious about endorsing either project but enthusiastic about getting the kind of answers that $500,000 worth of research will produce.
"Everytime we talk about Georgetown traffic, somebody suggests a trolley," said one D.C. transportation official. "This ought to tell us once and for all whether it will work."There are enough red flags, railroad flares and slow train orders to discourage enthusiasm about either route.
Money is the big barrier; either system would have to be self-supporting with no subsidies of any kind. Since the D.C. Transit trolleys stopped running more than 20 years ago, much of the Georgetown track has been torn up and most of the rest probably couldn't be used. The old car barn at the foot of Key Bridge has become too valuable to use for parking trolleys and any alternative would be costly. Conlon's statement that the government ought to give a profit-making railroad free right-of-way is a few decades out of date, but then so is the whole idea of trolleys.
There's nothing inherently wrong with old-tech. Look at a wood stove; except for the newfangled ones with catalytic converters, most wood burners are slightly updated versions of turn-of-the-century technology.
The Dulles route envisions modern equipment, but authentic old-time trolleys could provide rolling stock for the Georgetown line. Just the thought of a varnished and gilded trolley clattering through Georgetown is enough to make any ferroequin- ologist flush with excitement and free-associate about taking the trolley all the way to Glen Echo.
But I suspect the numbers will not work. We'll still have to drive to Dulles, fight for a parking place in Georgetown and live out our streetcar desires at the Trolley Museum in Wheaton.