The city has put El Paso’s old streetcars up for sale, even as it moves forward with plans to bring streetcar service back to Downtown.
The classic Art Deco-style cars are remnants of the city’s once bustling Downtown. They are also the most desirable vintage cars of the 20th century, according to experts.
But the city says restoring the old streetcars is too expensive and poses too many challenges. While the streetcars were a fixture of life and work in El Paso until the early 1970s, they now languish in the desert at El Paso International Airport.
“I am trying to be a good shepherd of taxpayer dollars,” says Jane Shang, the city’s deputy city manager of mobility services, who would like to use replica streetcars instead.
But the group that has been entrusted with the streetcars for the past 28 years, leasing them from the city, maintains it would not be much more expensive to restore the streetcars.
“They look bad, but structurally they are strong,” says Ron Dawson, president of the Paso del Norte Streetcar Preservation Society and local streetcar historian.
Called PCC streetcars, El Paso’s trolleys are “cultural icons” worth saving, Dawson says, famous for their reliability and Art Deco styling.
PCC stands for Presidents’ Conference Committee, a trolley design built in the United States in the 1930s. After World War II, the design was licensed for use in other counties, and PCC cars are still in service around the world.
Nevertheless, city records show a solicitation for the sale of the streetcars was issued on July 24. The deadline for proposals is Aug. 15.
A city appraisal values the streetcars at $6,000 each for museum use.
Both Shang and Dawson have an arsenal of studies and experts to support their arguments.
Twice as much
Shang says she’s based her decision largely on a 2010 study funded by the Texas Department of Transportation. It estimates that it would cost twice as much to restore a classic streetcar as it would to purchase a replica – $2.2 million rather than $1.2 million.
But Dawson says that’s wrong. He points to an estimate he received last week from Pennsylvania-based Brookville Corp., which has restored PCC streetcars in Philadelphia and San Francisco.
In an email dated Aug. 1, a company salesperson wrote, “A ball park figure to completely restore either your PCC cars or our double-ended PCC cars for everyday revenue service in the condition and quality equivalent to San Francisco’s PCC cars would be roughly $1.5 million or $1.8 million.”
In San Diego, a group recently completed the restoration of an old PCC car for $850,000. It is now running successfully in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter.
That restoration was privately funded and done by volunteers, according to Dave Slater, who managed the project.
Slater, a streetcar restoration expert, has inspected El Paso’s streetcars and says their condition is probably 20-percent worse than the streetcar they restored in San Diego.
He estimates it would cost $1.3 million to refurbish one of El Paso’s cars and it is “absolutely viable.” His advice for the city? “Have them rebuilt.”
City Rep. Steve Ortega has been one of the most vocal advocates for bringing streetcars, whether replica or restored, back to Downtown El Paso.
Ortega favors using restored streetcars, but only if it is “fiscally prudent” to do so.
“My personal preference is reintroduction of the existing streetcars that were used in this community for decades, because they have a bona fide El Paso connection,” he says. “It’s part of our community’s history that many people remember.”
The city was promised $90 million from the state to rebuild a piece of El Paso’s Downtown streetcar system. But Shang says that funding is contingent on the completion of an environmental study and preliminary engineering study by the end of next month.
“It’s very ambitious. I’m trying to position El Paso so that we are eligible for this funding,” Shang says.
The plans have to be finalized by January, she says.
“You really want to focus on what is more cost effective because you have a budget and you have a timeline,” Shang says.
She adds, “I understand the history of the streetcars here in El Paso, but it takes time and money.”
The city doesn’t have the facility or mechanics needed to maintain restored streetcars as they do in San Diego and San Francisco, she says. There are also lots of unknowns when you restore an old vehicle, she says, and that could put the funding at risk.
Dawson disagrees. “The thing about PCC cars is it’s a technology that has been around, and it is proven,” he says. “It is a system that works.”
Shang says she will halt the sale if the streetcar society can come up with a “legitimate proposal” that shows restoring the old streetcars won’t cost any more than buying replicas, or jeopardize the city’s funding.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.