One noteworthy Saporta Report guest columnist uses a different metaphor than the "first seed in the garden" one we favor when describing the under-construction Atlanta Streetcar. The initial 2.6-mile loop around downtown, in the eyes of Leon Eplan, represents Atlanta "at last putting our small toes into a large pond." Eplan, the former commissioner of Atlanta's Department of Planning and Development, was the principal director of the city's Peachtree Corridor Streetcar Feasibility Study, and in his advocating for an extensive streetcar system he just might be a heretic. "The common opinion in Atlanta is that the public is so wedded to their automobiles that nothing we can do will ever cause them to leave their vehicles behind," Eplan writes. "But that has not been tested because few travel alternatives exist. In cities where the modern streetcar has been introduced, large numbers of riders have willing switched from their automobiles to transit when given that opportunity." Sounds like an optimist — and a stark contrast to those who've decried the streetcar as a waste-of-money tourist shuttle.
Along with his praise for the economic jolt streetcars can bring, Eplan notes Atlanta's history with streetcars, which remained in use until the end of World War II. The streetcar business was ultimately made unprofitable by a massive shift to automobiles for transportation. But the arriving streetcars, Eplan notes, will bear little resemblance to their clunky predecessors; expect sleek, colorful, quiet vehicles whose rails will be level with the street, allowing for coexistence with all forms of vehicles and also bicycles. Modern streetcar systems, Eplan points out, currently exist or are being introduced into more than 40 large and medium-size American cities, with Portland being the pioneer.
Last month, it emerged that a significant number of kinks are being worked out with the initial loop's construction, as the project had run aground on numerous subterranean utilities. The snafus can be blamed, in part, on the project's "design-build" status, which is exactly what it sounds like. The scheduled debut of streetcar service has been knocked back about six months to spring or early summer 2014. Expect to see actual tracks make a return to Atlanta's streets in the next couple of months. By then, as Eplan explains, planning for additional lines will have already begun.