TROLLEY: Transit Plan for Old Town Pasadena : One-Mile Loop for Pasadena : Developer Bets on Trolley for Restoring Old Town

Times Staff Writer

The thick packet of unused plans for rail mass transit in Los Angeles County notwithstanding, a private developer in Pasadena wants to build the first trolley system constructed in the area since the turn of the century, but it's unclear if the proposal is a dramatic initiative or a ticket to Toonerville.

After 18 months of trying--including at least one large promotional event--the developer, John P. Wilson, has finally convinced Pasadena city officials that he is serious about his plan to encircle, with a one-mile trolley loop, a restored historical area of Old Town Pasadena that will become a shopping center. The area is near the intersection of Colorado Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue.

Assured of Solvency

The trolley, Wilson projects, will attract 2,000 riders a day and is assured of solvency by rent assessments that will be charged all occupants of Wilson's ambitious Pasadena Marketplace development, which began construction of its first parking garage this week. Riders would pay a 50-cent fare, but many merchants would provide tokens free.

A comparison of Wilson's figures with the operating results of other cities that have tried the same thing, however, suggests some possible major discrepancies.

Triple the Ridership

Wilson bases predictions for his trolley's success on assumptions that the Pasadena line will attract nearly triple the ridership of what is now the largest such operation in the country.

Moreover, Wilson maintains that the rent assessment will provide a more than adequate subsidy to ensure that the trolley line meets its costs. But the assessment of merchants to cover the revenue that the trolley doesn't generate from the fare box would be only about half the actual deficit recorded each year by a similar trolley line in Seattle and an even smaller fraction of the loss in Detroit.

Local interest in Pasadena has been intense and city officials--both elected and not--have come to share much of Wilson's enthusiasm and optimism. His shopping center restoration may represent the key to resurgence of a part of downtown Pasadena that, until about two years ago, had been in unremitting decline.

Too, there is great optimism in Pasadena that redevelopment of the Old Town Pasadena zone in general may be a major step in the budding reestablishment of the city as a top quality shopping, dining and night life center--after years of eclipse by communities on the Westside.

There is a certain irony even in that because Wilson's most recent project was the Westside restoration of the Main Street strip in Santa Monica. That is a project that first seemed destined to attract nothing but serious, upscale stores, boutiques and restaurants but which recently has turned, Wilson concedes, into a bit more of a tourist and beach visitor drag than first intended.

And though other transit lines have been proposed and endlessly discussed in the Los Angeles metropolitan area there is at least the prospect that the first rail system actually to be built in the county since the Red Cars went out of business in the 1950s will not only be constructed by a private company but will be a line that exists nowhere in any of the grid of plans drawn up for the area as long ago as 1911.

There is skepticism in Pasadena, too, of course. Even one local businessman who supports Wilson's plan likens the trolley to the horsecar ride at Disneyland.

And while Wilson claims to be nearly ready to proceed with actual construction of his trolley line--he says it will be ready for its first passengers by December of next year--a survey by The Times of such attempts in seven other cities finds that pitfalls for such little trolleys are many, complete failures are common and true successes are few.

Attracting Visitors

The trolley line, Wilson and Pasadena city officials agree, could enhance the city's attraction to visitors. There is even talk--so far nothing more, though--of the trolley line begetting more light rail on a modest local grid in Pasadena and mating with a proposed high-speed line to downtown Los Angeles.

Neither the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission nor the Southern California Rapid Transit District would take an official position on Wilson's Pasadena trolley. Each agency said that the Pasadena line isn't part of any cohesive transit system for the Southland.

Wilson says he is putting $50 million into his Pasadena Marketplace development, of which the trolley line will account for $1.7 million to $2.1 million--figures trolley experts say may represent realistic estimates for the cost of actually building the system Wilson proposes. The figure, however, is only about a third that of the actual construction cost in Detroit, which, since 1976, has operated a short downtown line of its own along a 7/8-mile track.

"I don't think you can relate any trolley system in the country to what we are doing," Wilson said. "I suffer from being overly optimistic. Right now, I don't see any problems. From my own experience in selling nostalgia, if you will, I know we're creating a destination point in Pasadena."

The trolley line would run on the rectangle formed by Raymond Avenue, Green Street, DeLacey Avenue and Union Street. It would cross Colorado and Fair Oaks twice.

Wilson said operating costs for the Pasadena system would total about $108,000 per car per year. The figure is roughly comparable with systems in Seattle and Detroit, both of which record major operating losses. Wilson said the rent assessment in his development guarantees there will be no shortfall in Pasadena.

Formal Unveiling

When Wilson printed 5,000 posters inviting local people to the formal unveiling of his first restored trolley in April, between 3,000 and 4,000 showed up to take a look. The car appeared on a flatbed truck because it still lacks a motor and other running gear, but Wilson says arrangements have been made to purchase the required components for that car, two others like it that are in storage and are still unrestored and three more that have not yet been bought.

But the loop--which would shuttle customers from parking structures to shops and provide rides for busloads of tourists--represents a vastly scaled down version of Wilson's first trolley proposal. Wilson said that line, which would have connected Lake Avenue with Wilson's Old Town Pasadena project, was scuttled because of high construction and operation costs.

The original line--and a smaller version proposed later--would have installed an actual, working transit system on Pasadena city streets, carrying riders along Colorado Boulevard and connecting the city's three major commercial clusters. Wilson's venture still awaits formal city approval--which Pasadena officials now appear willing to grant, barring unexpected developments--and has not yet passed muster with the state Public Utilities Commission.

Experiences in seven other cities that have had flirtations or serious affairs with such systems indicate the route to even a short trolley line like Wilson's is strewn with obstacles.

Two of the cities--Aspen, Colo., and Ann Arbor, Mich.--that have gotten at least as far as Wilson has (purchase of the antique trolley cars that would be used in the service) have failed in their attempts to actually construct the lines. Ann Arbor eventually gave up completely and sold its lone car to Detroit--even though the original Ann Arbor plan to connect the University of Michigan campus with downtown made sense as a strictly transportation objective. Like Aspen's, the Ann Arbor plan was the product of a private group, which had the backing of the city's chamber of commerce.

In Aspen, five cars originally purchased by a group of businessmen in 1979 for use on a one-mile line connecting ski areas with the city's Victorian downtown area are now rotting in a ranch field and a sixth car is used as an information booth. That plan, too, would have accomplished a valid transit objective by carrying passengers from one place to another place.

Though Aspen city officials still say they may someday build the line, the Aspen Street Railway Co., which was formed to construct and operate it, has been dissolved and the only benefit anyone has derived from the plan so far went to the final private owner of the cars, who donated them to the city of Aspen three years ago in exchange for a tax deduction. The recipient of the tax break--a man who has since died--bailed out the Aspen Street Railway when its bankers called in its loans, said Jon Busch, one of the original investors.

'Destined Not to Work'

Wilson dismissed the comparison to Aspen out of hand. Aspen, said Wilson, "was destined not to work," though, in Wilson's own trolley plan, the Aspen system is cited as an example of such a line currently in the active planning stages.

One other line in Yakima, Wash., is threatened with closure by the end of the summer because the Union Pacific Railroad, which owns its tracks, has abandoned the right-of-way in question, leaving the city to negotiate with the actual owners of 21 parcels of land that the rail line crosses. Yakima officials say that they are optimistic the line's problems can be overcome and that they hope to continue the service, which operates on weekends only, attracts just under 8,000 tourist riders a year and charges fares as high as $3. The line makes extensive use of volunteer labor and manages to run about $4,000 in the black after annual expenses of $21,600, its manager said.

Still another city, Seattle, is trying to resuscitate its trolley operation by extending the route and adding a true destination because ridership dropped when the novelty value wore off. The Seattle system, which runs antique Australian cars along a 1.6-mile stretch of the city's waterfront, cost $3.4 million in public money--some of which was provided by the federal government. The line first ran in 1982.

On the balance sheet, Seattle's system has produced questionable results. The trolley line charges a 60-cent fare, hauling about 250,000 passengers a year, but generating only $140,000 in revenues versus $481,000 in operating expenses. Though transfers from the rest of Seattle's bus system are accepted on the trolley, the total number of people who use the rail cars is insignificant compared to the 66 million who ride the rest of the system each year.

A fifth of the seven trolley lines in Fort Collins, Colo., is still under construction by a group of private trolley enthusiasts who will rely entirely on volunteer labor to build and operate a 12-block line that will run for tourist purposes on weekends only. The Fort Collins group concedes it will have difficulty meeting a 1986 construction deadline, but expects to convince city officials to grant an extension. The Fort Collins Municipal Railway Society, a spokesman said, remains confident that the line there will actually begin service.

In all, only in Detroit and Lowell, Mass., are the little trolley lines in what might charitably be called successful operation. Detroit's is owned and operated by the city Department of Transportation. Built at a cost of $6 million, the trolley runs just under a mile from Renaissance Center to Grand Circus Park near Cobo Hall, Detroit's convention center.

Financially, though, Detroit's line, too, is far from a winner. Spokesman Grover Tigue said that last year the Detroit trolley carried 121,000 passengers, bringing in $54,000 in revenues--but with operating costs of $530,000. Fares in Detroit are 45 cents.

Lures Visitors Downtown

"You really must want to do a system like this if you get into it at all," Tigue said, but he added that Detroit officials believe the trolley lures visitors downtown who would not otherwise come. "You can't measure the trolley's success in dollars and cents," Tigue said.

Tigue said the Detroit system uses eight cars--all but one of them vehicles built from 1899 to about 1925 for urban transit systems in Portugal. They are identical to the cars Wilson's Pasadena system would use.

Tigue said passenger use has been increasing in recent years. In a December, 1984, filing with the Pasadena city government, Wilson acknowledged the Detroit operating losses, but contended that they were attributable entirely to low passenger volume during the winter months. But Tigue said that, to the contrary, the winter and summer are the two peak ridership periods there--with winter passenger volumes increasing over the fall and spring because people seek warmer means of travel.

The system in Lowell, Mass., which is still partly under construction, is controlled by the National Park Service and is used to haul tourists visiting the city's historic points of interest. The Lowell system so far, though, has managed to attract only 60,000 passengers among the 596,000 people who visit the historic district annually, the Park Service said.

None of these experiences has dampened enthusiasm for the trolley project of Wilson, whose favorite expression is said to be, "Let's do it!" An unshakable optimist and promoter, Wilson has managed to convert most of the originally skeptical Pasadena government and business community to sympathy for his transit project.

He has guaranteed to build and operate the trolley without cost to the city and, he said in an interview, to provide a $100,000 bond to cover the costs of tearing up the track and taking down the overhead power wires if the trolley and/or he should go out of business.

Despite Wilson's optimism, the comparisons between his proposal and the Seattle and Detroit systems are striking. Wilson's development would assess tenants a 3-cent per square foot charge each month to cover trolley losses--an amount that would generate just $180,000 a year in the whole 500,000-square-foot development. Merchants would get free tokens to distribute to customers, a practice that would cut fare box revenues. That subsidy is significantly lower than the operating losses for either of the two other systems.

Wilson's figure of 2,000 riders per day turns into 730,000 passengers a year, or nearly triple the number Seattle attracts for the nation's best performance by a similar vintage trolley line. Moreover, even if all of Wilson's passengers paid the full 50-cent fare.

Local business and government people say that, though they were initially skeptical of Wilson, they have been largely won over to his position.

First Major Test

The change of heart about Wilson extends to the trolley plan, which now emerges as perhaps the first major test of how serious the developer is about his grand scheme for Old Town Pasadena. Dave Barnhart, who is coordinating the trolley project for the city Department of Traffic and Transportation, conceded that, initially, he and his staff expected Wilson to have trouble dealing with a variety of city government concerns.

"Is Wilson serious? You know, I'm beginning to think so," said Barnhart. "He's a promoter and developer. He sees this (the trolley) as a key ingredient in bringing people in."

Alvin Simon, who with his son, Robert, runs Cafe Jacoulet, one of Old Town Pasadena's first major restaurants, had similar feelings. Both Simons said that they were originally dubious of Wilson. Initially, recalled Robert Simon, local people feared that what Wilson had in mind might be simply a replication of Old Town Pasadena in the image of some Westside place. "The city fathers will never let that happen here," Robert Simon said.

Alvin Simon said he is convinced Wilson recognizes that Pasadena thinks of itself far differently than the Westside. As a community, he said, Pasadena expects more substance and less hype than the Westside, which many local people perceive as an upstart. For that reason, Alvin Simon said he has discarded many of his doubts about Wilson, his shopping center and his trolley line.

At the same time, though, Alvin Simon said the cutting back of the trolley route to a mere people-mover loop around Wilson's shopping center is disquieting.

Wilson, Robert Simon said, "is accelerating a process that would otherwise be lethargic. Pasadena is very much wait-and-see."

"There are a lot of people who would like to say, 'Oh, he (Wilson) is just a promoter,' " Alvin Simon said. "But (in terms of large-scale redevelopment) I don't see anything else happening."

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