Councillors question cost and process surrounding $750K trolley project

Council critics are questioning the cost and process involved in restoring a dilapidated piece of Windsor's history and moving it from a dusty streetcar shed to a more prominent location.

Public consultation to determine where the trolley will go, and what will be inside it

City council voted on Monday night to restore an original Windsor streetcar. The 15 metre long vehicle weighs about 11,000 kilograms. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

Council critics are questioning the cost and process involved in restoring a dilapidated piece of Windsor's history and moving it from a dusty streetcar shed to a more prominent location. 

"It's a great item... but when you look at it up close, it is quite far gone," said Ward 3 Coun. Rino Bortolin.

Council voted 7-4 Monday to spend $750,000 to acquire and restore a 99-year-old trolley -- known as Streetcar 351. The money is coming from funds initially earmarked for other projects and the contract will be awarded without competition.

"We can't look at this as free money not increasing the tax base," said Bortolin. "We have to look at this in comparison with all of the competing priorities for capital spending."

Mayor Drew Dilkens told council they needed to make the decision to save part of Windsor's history, and that RM Auto Restorations in Chatham-Kent would do the work.

"This is a 50-foot long, 25,000 pound vehicle that's in poor condition. And so this is not the type of thing where you can open the Yellow Pages and look for streetcar restoration companies," said Dilkens. "RM is one of the best restoration companies in North America, maybe the world, and they happen to also be the closest to the City of Windsor."

Councillors were torn about the project, given the price and the uncertainty of where the trolley might end up. The plan is to put the renovated streetcar somewhere on the riverfront, and perhaps use it as a food or ice cream stand. But the city will hold public consultations first.

Streetcar 351 is in desperate need of repair. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

Ward 8 Coun. Bill Marra said the trolley has "tremendous historical" value but he does not "agree with sole-sourcing" the renovation contract.

Marra, along with Councilllors Bortolin, Chris Holt, and Irek Kusmierczyk voted against the project. Voting in favour with Dilkens were Councillors Jo Anne Gignac, John Elliott, Paul Borrelli, Ed Sleiman, Hilary Payne and Fred Francis. 

"For them to suggest that sole-sourcing the repair and the restoration of the streetcar is something that is new and something we've never done before is not the truth," Dilkens said, pointing out that the contract to restore the Lancaster bomber was also awarded without competition. 

"With something like the Lancaster bomber - we never put that out to [Request For Proposal], we felt comfortable leaving here in the community having the group of people working on it work on it here in the city of Windsor. It was not something we were going to ship away to have completed," said Dilkens.

The 99-year-old streetcar still has its number 351 faintly seen on the side. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

Stan Uher, the owner of Classic Coachworks in Blenheim, has extensive experience restoring old vehicles. His skills are so in demand that Dawson City, Yukon, recently called upon his company to restore a horse-drawn steam pumper from the 1890s.

Uher said the $750,000 price tag seems reasonable for a full-blown restoration of a trolley that size but seems excessive if the trolley is only going to be used as a concession stand. 

"You wouldn't want to spend all that time and money on the inner workings of that streetcar if it's never going to be used," said Uher. "No way. That would be just throwing money out the window."

Uher explained that restoration is all about making the vehicle function again, in the way it was originally intended. He said that the city might be looking for more of a cosmetic fix to the vehicle if it's not going to function as a streetcar. 

"I can well imagine from all my years of experience that the mechanical would be extensive in something like that, and to not have to do those would represent - anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent savings," he said. 

The trolley, as seen here, resides in the former streetcar shed on University Avenue West, but the owner of that property has sold it and the trolley must go by November 9. (Dale Molnar/CBC)

Uher said he'd be interested in working on the trolley if "it would fit in the doorway" of his shop. 

"The car will never run again, so we're not looking to make it operational," said Dilkens, who explained the city would like the exterior and interior to look original, leaving room inside to "operate in a way that makes sense today."

"In my mind the only justification for three quarters of a million dollars of restoration is that it will be museum quality," said Bortolin.

The vehicle currently resides in the former streetcar shed on University Avenue West, but the owner of that property has sold it and the trolley must go by November 9.

Van Niforos is donating the streetcar to the city and in return will get a $100,000 dollar tax receipt.