Rediscovery of trolley tracks during excavation for the Combined Sewer Overflow project at Eighth and Commercial streets is the local equivalent of an Englishman digging in his village lane and uncovering a forgotten Roman road. It is a sign that our ancestors were smart and sophisticated, and also that transportation planning got lost along the way in the 20th century.

It came as a surprise to find tracks still buried under the pavement. Scrap-metal drives during the world wars melted down countless tons of old rails and other artifacts of the 19th century industrial age. Across the river, for example, a good deal of the former Ilwaco Railroad & Navigation Co. went into the smelting pot.

But it wasn’t news to local historians that Astoria had been served by a streetcar line. In fact, such infrastructure was common in towns even smaller than Astoria around the turn of the last century. South Bend, Wash., had streetcars.

Before automobiles became king, this humble form of local mass transit provided cheap and convenient movement around the urban cores of towns and cities nationwide. As with the straight, durable-surfaced Roman roads in Europe and Britain, these American streetcar lines were state-of-the-art for their time and in some ways surpassed what came after. For a nickel or so per ride, they carried people from one end of town to the other, producing relatively little in the way of pollution.

They were put to death by automobiles, which provided independent personal movement, but at the high cost of requiring an enormous petroleum extraction, refining and distribution industry – plus hefty monthly car payments. It has been well documented that the nascent auto industry worked hard behind the scenes to put streetcar lines out of business.

As far as these rediscovered tracks are concerned, their significance is not as precious historical artifacts. They are a worthwhile reminder, not a keepsake.

We should fully engage in what would surely be a decades-long process of planning how to restore mass transit, even in cities Astoria’s size. Our river trolley is a charming asset for sightseeing, but what would be really useful is an affordable and convenient way of moving residents around between neighborhood hubs and our jobs and stores.

Astoria was a leader in electrification and other signature technologies of past generations. Maybe these old trolley tracks will spark imaginative thoughts about new ways of getting around as the 21st century moves forward.

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