Could an old streetcar that began its life as a open-air summertime trolley and then became a Ritchie Highway diner ride rails girdling the Inner Harbor basin?
Step aboard and take a seat, says a coalition of local transportation museum heads, foundation officials and business executives.
The group proposes restoring broken-down streetcar bodies with new operating motors and trucks to run on a roughly 1.5-mile system from Little Italy to some as yet unfixed point along the base of Federal Hill, with a leg to Oriole Park at Camden Yards and the Convention Center.
If this streetcar system works as a tourist amenity, they foresee extensions to Carroll Park, the B&O; Museum on the west and Fells Point on the east.
If the streetcars are as much of a success as they hope, Baltimore could have vintage rail trolleys running along Key Highway and Fort Avenue to Fort McHenry as well.
"It works in so many other cities," said John Ott, director of the B&O; Railroad Museum in Southwest Baltimore. "It's really a tourist delivery system that can be built in phases over time that can be funded in a number of ways. The rail-based museums can lend their expertise. There can be public-private partnerships."
This short shuttle system is not designed to be a commuter carrier, as is the Northern Central Light Rail Line from Glen Burnie to Timonium. Instead, the harbor cars would roll along at 10 to 18 mph, and riders would sit on rattan seats in smartly painted cars.
"The idea of a functional urban tourism system originates from San Francisco in the 1950s when the city restored the cable cars. Today they are a national treasure," said Henry A. Jaeger, a Bell Atlantic engineer.
He said some 30 North American cities have heritage transit systems. He estimates the cost of the Inner Harbor circuit at $4 million to $5 million, with additional car restoration costs.
"People like to see fixed rails. They know there is a beginning and an end. And there is a fun value of riding a real streetcar that is handsome and reassuring. Even if we only build one part around the edge of the harbor, that in itself could become a tourist attraction," said Mr. Ott of the B&O; Museum.
The initial line is being considered to open in time for the 1997 Bicentennial of the incorporation of Baltimore City.
The first group of cars would be actual city streetcars of the type that once crisscrossed the downtown and then traversed urban and suburban neighborhoods. There would be overhead wires, poles and steel rails and of course the ringing bells so associated with streetcar travel.
The Baltimore Streetcar Museum, now in the Jones Falls Valley near Pennsylvania Station, has set aside three vintage streetcar bodies to run on the proposed harbor shuttle line. Restoration of these shells is slated for the Living Classrooms Foundation, a Caroline Street group that trains city youths in carpentry and construction.
"We've been discussing leaving our Falls Road location, which is in a flood plain, and talked about moving to a site near the B&O; Museum. The harbor line would fit in with our plans," said John O'Neill, president of the Baltimore Streetcar Museum.
Last month, his organization rescued a deteriorating trolley body from a Ritchie Highway commercial property that once served as a roadside diner. The car was built in 1902 as an open-sided summer car and was later modified for year-round use. It was retired in 1931 when it changed careers and became Ward's Diner -- a place for coffee and hamburgers.
The street car coalition has presented a formal report to the Mayor's Advisory Commission on Tourism, Entertainment and Culture. This document suggests that 600,000 riders -- about one in three of the National Aquarium's paid visitors -- will use the cars each year.
"This is a very interesting plan. I have worked with the streetcar group to help make the proposal realistic. They certainly worked hard on an attractive proposal," said Leonard Sachs, who chairs the tourism commission and is also chairman of Maryland Office Interiors.
What about competition to the water taxis operating between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point?
"For me and my business, the competition would affect the numbers I carry, but this is one hell of an idea," said Ed Kane, president of Harbor Water Taxi. "I was in New Orleans two weeks ago and saw what it [a similar rail trolley line] does along the waterfront.
"As president of the Fells Point Business Association, I would want it extended to Fells Point immediately."
"Other cities have streetcar lines, but Baltimore was a pioneer in electric streetcar transit. The city should celebrate this heritage," said Parker D. Pennington, a designer and Fells Point resident who is a member of the streetcar coalition.
"This is an idea that ought to be explored. It has everything going for it. If it doesn't work, the cars can always be made into diners once again," said Mr. Ott of the B&O; Museum.