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To Get Around Town, Some Cities Take A Step Back In Time

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This story is part of a project on commuting in America.

Cities across the country are investing in old-fashioned streetcars to solve what's known as the "last mile" problem. The hope is that trolleys will make it easier for people get to their final destination.

Atlanta is one of the latest, laying steel rails for a 2.6 mile line. The tracks will run downtown from Peachtree Street to the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district on the east side of the city. Some see this as a big step forward.

"We have to have a look at reducing traffic issues. Now one Atlanta streetcar will take off 197 motor cars from the road," says Timothy Borchers, executive director of Atlanta's streetcar project. He grew up in Australia before coming to the U.S. to help develop trolley systems in St. Louis, Memphis, Tenn., Savannah, Ga., Tampa, Fla. and Tucson, Ariz.

"We're going back to some of the good qualities of the past. We're rebuilding the urban cores, and it's not an experiment — it's that everything that was old is new again," Borchers says.

Streetcars were popular in many cities in the last century, but trolleys disappeared in most cities as cars flourished and cities switched to buses and subways for mass transit. In 2001, Portland, Ore., was the first to develop a new kind of streetcar system. Success there led to a resurgence, with at least two dozen cities planning, building or expanding trolley lines.

"One of the issues you have is you can't go that last mile," says Catherine Ross, head of a center for regional development at Georgia Tech.

Ross also says trolleys are one way to address congestion.

"We have these ebbs and flows, right? And we don't have an ability to sort of relieve some of that pressure. I think the streetcar will be able to do that," Ross says.

Another reason streetcars are making a comeback is because the federal government is awarding big grants to cities to help build them. Atlanta got about $50 million. Officials say trolleys also bring economic development.

Putting Money In The Ground

Just east of downtown Atlanta was once was a bustling, wealthy African-American business hub known as Sweet Auburn. When the interstate was built, it cut the area in two. People here have long waited for the economic turnaround they were promised.

Sweet Auburn Bread Company Chef Sonya Jones says she hopes the streetcars will revitalize the area and that the construction is worth it.

"I'm excited about the streetcar project. I'm looking forward to its completion. But I cannot deny it's caused some challenges for my business. It's quite frustrating," she says.

City officials say for every public dollar spent, they will get two to three times as much private investment. But David Levinson, who teaches transportation engineering and economics at the University of Minnesota, says there's no guarantee. He says cities are better served upgrading their bus service.

"There's a lot of money you're just putting into the ground. It doesn't provide any transportation benefit. It's basically a lot of embedded capital that is costly that doesn't make the system work any faster," he says.

But Atlanta officials say bus lines don't provide the nostalgic environment that streetcars do. And while bus routes can be easily changed, streetcar lines will remain — and perhaps provide that last mile solution cities are seeking.

Still, some are skeptical. Ben Lambert is a writer who lives in Atlanta. "So it's gonna be a tourist thing then. It's a waste of money if you ask me," Lambert says.

But supporters are banking streetcars will work. "It's what built cities originally and it's what's building cities again," says Borchers of the streetcar project.

Downtown near Centennial Olympic Park, the streetcar tracks are taking shape. When the trolleys starts operating next spring, it will be what many say is a first step with hopes of expanding the system in the future.

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