Texas is planning a new El Paso streetcar, abandoning the original design

Plans to get the Wyler Aerial Tramway up and running could start soon, but the original tram will not be repaired. Instead, a new one will be built at a nearby location with improvements.

Many El Paso residents remember boarding the bright, amber cable cars, enjoying the scenery of the Franklin Mountains and ending with an incredible view of the towers atop Ranger Peak.

Local pride in the streetcar sparked public outcry in 2018 when Texas Parks and Wildlife closed the streetcar out of an abundance of caution, saying it was no longer suitable for public use.

Now, six years and a feasibility study later, there is some potential progress.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, in partnership with the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority (CRRMA), is moving closer to rehabilitating the streetcar line – a project estimated to cost $36 million.

According to its website, CRRMA is a political subdivision of the state of Texas, created by the El Paso City Council. The agency has led several transportation projects in the city, including the El Paso Streetcar and aesthetic improvements along Interstate 10 and Airway Boulevard.

Raymond Telles, executive director of the agency, said CRRMA is leading the design and construction process.

“This project is real,” Telles said. “It’s not just an idea; it’s really happening.”

The project consists of three phases, he said.

First improvements to the base of the tram, then a new visitor center and finally the tram itself.

Designs and financing for phase one of the project are 100% complete, Telles said. Construction work could start within weeks. The first phase will lay the foundation for the tram and improve the road to the tram on McKinley Avenue.

The shared renderings show a number of new features: a bypass, more parking, shelters, a bus stop for school tours and even a proposed amphitheater.

Now that the financing has been secured, that part of the project can move forward.

“We’ve been to the Legislature three times so far,” Telles said. “To date, we have received just under $20 million from the Legislature.”

That means $16 million from state funds is still needed to complete the streetcar line, and costs could change once construction begins.

When it came to funding, state Rep. Lina Ortega was a strong advocate for streetcar line funding, Telles said. However, Ortega will not stand for re-election in 2024. As she leaves, Telles remains confident that Texas lawmakers will approve the remainder of the funding needed to complete the project.

“The rest of the delegation supported this,” he said. “I know they will continue to push for this even if Rep. Ortega leaves.”

Ortega’s chief of staff responded to an email requesting additional details, saying, “The Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority will soon release design plans for Phase 1 of the project to recruit a contractor for the project.”

The contractor application will most likely be released in the coming months, if not weeks, Telles said. Construction of phase one would be completed within 18 months of work starting, allowing them to move to the visitor center and ultimately the tram.

Telles said the original Wyler Aerial Tramway would not be restored; instead, through a feasibility study, Texas Parks and Wildlife chose to go back to square one and build a streetcar line solely for the public.

“You have to remember that the original streetcar was intended to provide service to the towers,” Telles said. “It was never intended for the public.”

Built in 1959, the Wyler Aerial Tramway, named for radio and television pioneer Karl O. Wyler of El Paso, was designed to provide maintenance access to television transmission towers until it was donated to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department in 1997.

The department reopened it to the public in 2001 after renovations and operated the streetcar for almost twenty years. The tram transported approximately 45,000 visitors annually.

Proposed designs from the CRRMA show a new tram line running almost parallel to the old one. The plans also include a new base station. Instead of connecting to the transmission towers, the tram ends at a new observation deck, where visitors can witness spectacular views of two countries and three states.

“Ranger Peak is not super friendly to the public,” Telles said. “It’s an operations tower that has been retrofitted so the public can hang out and enjoy the view – there’s even radiation visible.”

The new tram line will also have larger cable cars, Telles said. The designs for the streetcar itself are not yet complete, but Telles said he envisions cars large enough to carry 15 people at a time.

When asked about a possible completion date, Telles said it is difficult to say, especially given the gap in funding for the legislation.

“We’re still a few years away, but we have 100% of the funding for phase one, so that’s a huge step forward,” he said.

With only a few different entities building streetcar lines around the world, the process is tricky, Telles said, but the reward will certainly be worth it.

“It’s one of the things that makes El Paso so special,” Telles said. “So opening a tram line and allowing kids who might not be able to quite do the full hike to the top of the mountain will open up those views to so many people.”

Suggested tramway design views: (SLIDE 10) ITEM 6 – Wyler PPT (crrma-production.s3.amazonaws.com)

Proposed Design Views for Phase on (SLIDE 5) Wyler Tramway Phase I Project – Construction Advertisement Authorization 2/14/2024 (crrma-production.s3.amazonaws.com)