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Ding Ding! Years after wrenching up rails, American cities bringing back electric streetcar

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KENOSHA, Wis. - When the auto plant here closed, this prosperous Wisconsin port city on Lake Michigan lost more than just its largest employer. Its sense of vitality seemed to drain away, and city leaders set out to find something that would inject life into the brick-storefront downtown while the economy went through a transition.

What they came up with was obsolete: an electric streetcar. Kenosha decided to bring back a relic that once clattered around metropolitan areas in pre-war America but was abandoned on the march to modernity.

More than a decade later, the experiment is now popping up all over. More than 30 cities around the country are planning to build streetcar systems or have done so recently. Dallas, Portland and Seattle all have new streetcar lines. Most projects involve spending millions of dollars to put back something that used to be there — often in the same stretches of pavement.

"It goes along with the revival of inner cities all over America," said Steve Novick, transportation commissioner in Portland, which has spent more than $250 million to replace the lines the city shut down in 1950. "It's too bad that they weren't kept here all along."

Many city planners are convinced that old-timey cars tethered to overhead electric cables or their updated descendants — futuristic and low-slung — ignite economic development in a way that buses cannot — and with a whiff of romance. Embedding rails in roads is part of resurrecting entertainment districts and capitalizing on the return to urban living by young professionals and empty-nesters bored with suburban life.

"It really is about creating a certain kind of neighbourhood feel and fabric," said Patrick Quinton, executive director of the Portland Development Commission.

Since Portland's line opened, $3.5 billion in development has sprouted within blocks of the tracks. A section of old rail yards and warehouses is now the trendy Pearl District, home to galleries, restaurants, shops and housing. The system has been expanded to nearly eight miles and each weekday carries 13,000 people, who can track arriving cars on their smartphones.

Salt Lake City, where the last streetcars vanished in 1946, is set to open a two-mile line next month. It's part of a planned "greenway" of parks, bike paths and trails designed to attract 4,000 new households and 7,700 jobs by 2030.

For technology firms and "talent-driven companies, it's definitely a selling point" for business locations, said Quinton.

American companies are making streetcars again for the first time since the 1950s. Most new systems use sleek cabins with doors that slide open at street level. Just like their forerunners, they run with traffic rather than on separated lines so the systems can cost as little as $50 million, a fraction of the expense of light rail.

Voters in Los Angeles and Kansas City have approved new taxes for streetcar projects. A handful of cities, including New Orleans and Philadelphia, are delighted they don't have to. Their streetcars survived the mid-century purge and continue making their rounds.

Kenosha built its system in 2000 for about $6 million, mostly funded by a federal grant, using 1950s-era cars cast off by the city of Toronto. It revived a line that had carried passengers from 1903 to 1932.

The middle-class town of about 100,000 was once a vibrant port, and grand civic buildings from the early 1900s line the grid of broad boulevards and narrow lanes.

Today, the city is something of a bedroom community for nearby Milwaukee and Chicago. A more diverse economy is bringing jobs back and the lakefront has blossomed with condominiums, two museums, parks, a heated boat storage facility and a harbour bristling with sailboats.

Before the two-mile streetcar loop was laid, the downtown "was very dark," said Joe Catuara, standing outside his bustling hot dog shop — aptly named Trolley Dogs. "Now it's lit up more, there are businesses." A row of shops, bookstores and cafes borders one side of the line.

The annual ridership of about 50,000 isn't large, but that may not matter, said Mayor Keith Bosman because the aim is to create atmosphere, much like public art, more than just transportation. He said the line helped hook the developer who put hundreds of new condos on the site of the old demolished Chrysler plant.

The city plans to double the system beginning as early as next year with a new leg that would help take in 85 per cent of the downtown businesses, as well as residential areas and a hospital, with the goal of luring more offices and housing downtown.

For now, the antique cars — drifting past almost empty and with a ghostlike whine — seem mostly an esthetic touch, offering a burst of colour against the dazzling blue backdrop of Lake Michigan.

Some are unimpressed. It's a "trolley to nowhere," said Pat Lawler, 83, sitting on a downtown bench. "In Kenosha, people drive their cars."

Still, the streetcars have soaked into the town's fabric. The old cars with their rounded edges and original bulbous light fixtures appear in street murals and in black and white photos on the walls of downtown shops, and each year the town holds a streetcar festival.

"It makes a bigger town seem smaller," said Jenna Hass, 29, who pays $1 to ride the streetcars with her 3-year-old son, Tyler, between museums or just for fun.

On a recent outing, streetcar mechanic Brad Preston let his red- and cream-colored car linger so a woman leaning from a minivan could take a photo.

"We get that a lot," Preston said with a grin.

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