The Main Avenue Tramway

Throughout the history of civic planning, there have been countless grand ideas and concepts which have never been carried out for various reasons- expense, impracticality, that sort of thing. If one were to go through the planning archives of this city alone, you’d see many plans which never came to fruition- the Northwest Expressway, the Riverfront Monorail, the Reed-Hudson Building Zeppelin Terminal, the University Monorail System, the Harris Memorial Aquacadium, the Crosstown Underground Monorail and the South Wharton Weatherproof Plastidome 2000 (proposed in 1979, with a self-contained monorail circuit).

One that slipped through the cracks was the Main Avenue Tramway first proposed in 1958 by the city’s planning department.

The original concept was to close ten miles of Main Avenue to automobile traffic and convert it into a pedestrian mall, serviced by electric trams which would traverse its length in an almost endless circuit. Over the objections of some on the planning board (who wanted to install a monorail system instead of trams), it was agreed to implement the plan on five blocks of Main Avenue downtown on a trial basis. Federal funds were promised to get it off the ground and, on June 6, 1961, the Main Avenue Tramway was opened, to great fanfare with a ceremony presided over by Mayor Shockley, the winner of the Miss Tramway 1961 pageant and Troy Donahue. The only things missing were the electric trams.

You see, the federal funds were promised. Then, they were promised again. And again. And again. People began to get restless, especially tenants on the five blocks of Main Avenue, who had been promised that the disruption to business due to the fact that customers could no longer drive to and park in front of their stores, offices and restaurants would be a thing of the past, once the futuristic trams were paid for and delivered. Add to this the fact that three of the city’s busiest bus lines had to be redirected and people just stopped bothering with the hassle of shopping downtown, instead heading out to the bright shiny new shopping centers in front of which they could park (especially the Galleria at Woldman Heights, which boasted a small indoor monorail). But, the money never came and the federal government made it clear that it would not anytime soon. City officials said fine, then it will just remain a pleasant pedestrian mall in the downtown.

In 1968, the Main Avenue Tramway was reopened to traffic. The five block stretch now boasted a seventy percent retail vacancy rate. In 1971, bus traffic was restored to the area. By 1989, the vacancy rate finally dipped below fifty percent.
– R. White

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