Streetcar envy

While Atlanta fails to get streetcar funding, Savannah expands

On Feb. 17, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a highly anticipated list of recipients of transportation stimulus grants. Atlanta – whose officials had been banking on the funds to help launch a streetcar system – was, surprisingly, not on the list.

MARTA and several other organizations had jointly applied for up to $300 million in funds to build streetcar lines on Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue. Mayor Kasim Reed visited Washington, D.C., to lobby officials, and many thought Atlanta had a good chance.

Instead, Atlanta's streetcar aspirations suffered a serious derailment – one made all the more deflating given that similar projects in two smaller Southern cities are already off the ground.

One of those cities, Charlotte, is expanding its existing light-rail system and is eyeing a streetcar system, and transit supporters in Atlanta frequently point to Charlotte as a transportation model. Atlanta residents caught a glimpse of that model in January, when the company that manufactured light-rail cars for Charlotte's transit expansion exhibited one of the cars here – to demonstrate what the future could look like.

Unlike Charlotte, Savannah hasn't gotten much attention from Atlanta when it comes to transit. And yet, a year ago this month, Savannah quietly became the first city in Georgia to relaunch the long-abandoned streetcar. Savannah officials describe it as the first hybrid-biodiesel streetcar of its kind in North America. Most of its fuel comes from recycled vegetable cooking oil, and it does not use an overhead wire.

Admittedly, the project is so small that even Savannah officials consider it an experiment. A single streetcar runs for just one mile four days a week. It mostly connects visitors to ferries and downtown bus service. Compared to Atlanta's transit plans, including the Peachtree Streetcar and the 22-mile loop of transit that would compose the Beltline, Savannah's streetcar line is modest.

Still, Savannah's line provides an example of what streetcars could look like here. And when Savannah was considering the prospect of a streetcar, congestion – a problem that Atlanta has wrestled with in a far larger arena – was one of the motivating factors.

The city's tourism officials had said they were concerned that traffic along River Street might have cost Savannah lucrative convention business. Convention-goers needed to traverse River Street to reach ferries that connect the city with its conference center. Congestion, in other words, was getting in the way of business. Sound familiar?

Atlanta's proposed streetcar system would include a 6.6-mile line on Peachtree Street and a 3.1-mile line along Auburn Avenue that would connect the King Center with Centennial Olympic Park. Beltline officials also have considered streetcars for that project's transit component.

While Atlanta struggles to find alternative ways to fund its streetcars, Savannah will expand service to five to seven days a week starting this month. Anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 riders use the streetcar monthly. And the city's considering a much larger expansion of the streetcar as part of a long-term transportation plan to reduce dependence on cars.

Savannah officials attribute the current system's success to its smaller scale. "The incremental approach is inherently easier because you don't need to have everything in place," says Sean Brandon, head of Savannah's parking bureau, which oversees the streetcar system. "You just need enough to prove the concept."

The size of the Savannah project also made it easier to fund. The city spent $1 million to buy the rail tracks from Norfolk Southern railroad, and about $400,000 to overhaul a 1920s streetcar and convert it to biodiesel.

Brandon said testing the technology for a year on a small, noncommuter line has allowed the city to tinker with biodiesel technology. The streetcar began operation using a 50-50 mix of vegetable-oil-based biodiesel and traditional diesel. It now uses biodiesel almost exclusively. The past year also gave Savannah drivers time to get used to sharing River Street with the streetcar.

While Savannah has been improving its existing system, some Atlanta officials don't know about Savannah's line. Others say it's too small to merit much thought. Richard Palmieri, an official with the company that manufactured the light-rail car for Charlotte's transit system, says Savannah's streetcar has been overlooked, particularly in Atlanta. Based in Alpharetta, Siemens Industry makes rail cars that can be adapted for light rail or streetcar use. "I know for sure in the Atlanta metro area no one really pays much attention to the fact that Savannah has a streetcar in operation," he says.

The industry that manufactures rail cars for trolley and light-rail systems, however, has taken notice, Palmieri says, in part because Savannah has a system that doesn't rely on overhead wires. "Within the industry, Savannah is talked about as a model," he says.

A.J. Robinson, head of Central Atlanta Progress, which was involved in applying for federal funds to build an Atlanta streetcar line, calls the Savannah line, "nice," but says, "We are really thinking of a much larger impact."

He adds: "I guess we have bigger dreams."

Robinson sees similarities between Savannah's one-mile line and the proposed Auburn Avenue line, because both would serve tourists, but says ultimately Atlanta needs a streetcar that will travel up Peachtree, the city's signature thoroughfare.

In the year since Savannah's streetcar has been in operation, no one from Atlanta has made an official inquiry, Brandon says, though there have been back-channel discussions.

While only a handful of cities in the U.S. currently use streetcars for mass transit, about three dozen have plans to introduce the service. Robinson says Atlanta officials have studied systems in Portland and San Diego. Portland has what's probably the best-known and most successful modern streetcar system, which the city launched in 2001. Palmieri says Portland's system is the closest to Atlanta's proposal.

Many cities that added streetcars have found that the service provides an economic boost. Even on a small scale, Savannah officials say that's exactly what they've found. Brandon says the streetcar has helped bring more traffic to a portion of River Street that previously attracted fewer visitors. He points out that streetcars have historically served that purpose.

"In the old days, a homebuilder, a bank, the government and a power company would get together and build out a neighborhood by installing a streetcar," Brandon says. "For urban areas that are seeking infill development, streetcars can fill that gap again."

Palmieri, who recently attended a meeting in Charlotte about building a streetcar line there, says Savannah, Memphis and Portland – cities that already have a streetcar up and running – all can provide an example for Atlanta.

"These places have built something, and the public embraces it," he says. "That's part of what Atlanta can learn from Savannah and other cities: Get it built."