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Friday, January 24, 2014 - 2:00am

Savannah Transit Officials Push For City Streetcar Line

Parts of downtown Atlanta are being torn up as the city builds a $100 million streetcar line.

Metro Atlanta officials say the trolley will be good for business.

But it's not the only Georgia city looking to "clang clang" into its future.

Chatham County also has a streetcar desire.

Of course, American cities largely dismantled their streetcar networks in the middle of the car-crazed 20th Century.

Now people like Terry Koller are helping them rediscover the romance of rails.

"These are the last two surviving Savannah streetcars," Koller says.

Koller restores rail cars for Georgia's State Railroad Museum in Savannah.

At the back of a sprawling historic railroad complex are two dusty, beat up streetcars.

The flimsy-looking trolleys came off Savannah streets in 1946.They sit next to a shiny newly rebuilt historic trolley that currently runs in Savannah called Dottie.

One of the unused cars has two seats remaining and wooden floors. Both of them don't look as sturdy as today's car. Dottie looks positively like a fortress by comparison.

"These Bernie Safety Cars were very lightly built," Koller says. "They're very light overall."

The unused trolleys are museum pieces. But when it's not being repaired, Savannah's Dottie rumbles up and down touristy River Street.

Savannah actually has Georgia's first streetcar of the modern era. Dottie started running five years ago.

And if Chatham Area Transit director Chadwick Reese has his way, it'll be more than a nostalgic showcase for visitors.

"The one that we currently have is primarily for tourists," Reese said. "The new one would be for residents and tourists."

What Reece is proposing is a pair of streetcar lines that would go into a downtown area that you could call "transitional."

It's just on the edge of downtown.

There's a new hotel, a new museum and a new bus station in the heart of the area.

So things are coming up.

Reece says that the streetcar would spark even more development.

"Wherever the streetcar line goes, businesses, companies and investors come in to build up the area," Reece said. "Real estate, hotels, apartment complexes, mixed use housing, they invest along the streetcar line."

Transportation experts argue over the economic value of streetcars.

One Oregon study suggests a correlation between permanent transportation infrastructure and development.

But critics say that it's hard to tell how much new development comes because of the streetcar or because other factors like local zoning.

Portland-based transportation analyst Jarrett Walker says one thing is certain: the streetcar isn't always faster than a car, a bus, a bike or sometimes walking.

"Love makes us forgive things that maybe we shouldn't forgive," Walker said. "And that tends to happen with the love of the streetcar because it makes people tolerate some really unacceptable frequencies and speeds that you discover are unacceptable once you actually have to be somewhere at a particular time."

The streetcar system's costs would start at $56 million.

That initial estimate is about half the cost of a new area slated for construction in Savannah and about $15 million less than a two-mile section of roads and bridges on a soon-to-be-complete Savannah expressway, the last leg of the Truman Parkway.

At the new bus terminal, bus riders Johnny Mae Baker and John Williams waited for connections. They weren't so sure local residents needed the expense.

"I don't know," said Baker. "It might be helpful because we have a lot of tourists who come to Savannah. So it might be helpful to them."

John Williams isn't so sure.

"It doesn't make sense," said Williams. "It's not going to serve the people of the city. So what is the purpose of it? Waste of taxpayers' money."

Right now, budget-conscious skeptics have the upper hand in Savannah. City Council members would have to approve the idea. And so far they haven't been in a hurry to get on board the transit agency's plans.