All aboard proposed trolley?

An artist's rendering shows what a streetcar would look like on Charles Street. (Courtesy of Kittleson & Associates, Inc. / November 1, 2011)

Friends of the Trolley Inc., a group that supports a streetcar line along Charles Street between the Inner Harbor and north Baltimore, has hired a community organizer to promote the plan.

The new full-time position is designed to take previously volunteer efforts to the next level, said Mark Counselman, of Oakenshawe, who helped found Friends of the Trolley in 2005.

The organizer is Robin Budish, of Roland Park, former executive director of the group Fells Point Main Street and former executive director of the Historic Charles Street Association, Counselman said. He would not say what Budish's salary would be.

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Budish, who was slated to start Monday, Nov. 1, will work for Friends of the Trolley, not for the Charles Street Development Corp., a longtime proponent of a trolley line, or its offshoot, the Charles Street Trolley Corp., Counselman said. Those two groups have ties to Baltimore City government, and Friends of the Trolley wants to maintain its independence, even though all three groups have the same goal, he said.

"We just thought this would be a cleaner way to do it," he said, referring to his group hiring Budish. "This has always been a community-based plan."

He described Friends of the Trolley as a "grass-roots" group, and said its board has spent the past six years researching the proposed fixed-rail streetcar line, including how it would be built and funded.

David Funk, chairman of the Charles Street Trolley Corp., said the organization is not against the hiring of Budish.

"As a corporate entity, our goal is to persuade the mayor through our analysis of the project that it's a good project for Baltimore," Funk said.

But he added, "We don't feel comfortable leading an effort of a grassroots organization. That's not part of our mission."

Supporters believe the streetcar would provide a transportation alternative for neighborhoods along the Charles Street corridor from downtown to University Parkway and would draw tourists from downtown to other parts of the city, including landmarks like the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University in north Baltimore.

The 7.5-mile trolley line, estimated to cost between $150 million and $200 million, would mainly run along Charles and St. Paul streets, between the Convention Center and West University Parkway. Supporters hope to use a hybrid technology that could make it the first fixed-rail trolley system in the nation to run without using overhead wires.

"We've been working on this for a while, and the vision has come entirely from the community. My focus has been on the community side of things," Counselman said. "The institutions up and down the corridor are enthusiastic about this project, as are the people. People get it, and I think it's time to move forward."

But he said it is important to have the backing and approval of City Hall, so that the project can advance and the approval processes can begin.

That could be problematic.

"As of right now, we don't see any viable funding for this project," said Ian Brennan, press secretary to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "If a viable source can be developed, we can move forward with talks of implementation. The way the city is moving now, we can't build something and hope for funding. We need to have the money and then we can do it."

Counselman admits that both upfront capital costs and annual operating expenses need to be worked out, and that a proposal several years back to fund the project with a property tax on residents and businesses within one mile of the line proved to be "a non-starter" with the public.

And he conceded, "Any project of any magnitude requires backing from (levels) of government, and it takes years to put together."

But he said the streetcar line is inexpensive when compared to other major transportation projects completed in Baltimore.

The Red Line of the Baltimore Light Rail is a $1.8 billion project in capital costs, for example.