City's streetcar plan gains momentum
Augusta, Georgia — The appeal of streetcars as a "light" way to install electric light rail transit (LRT) seems to be spreading, and Augusta is one of the latest cities to have its civic leadership fall under the streetcar spell.
In April, the city's Downtown Development Authority released a report from engineering consultant URS Corporation that recommended several possible routes for a downtown streetcar circulator system, with the preferred starter alignment a 2.5-mile (4.0-km) loop running along Broad and Reynolds Streets, between Seventh and 13th streets.
As the APTA Streetcar and Heritage Trolley website elaborates,
There would also be a segment down 13th Street to the medical district and another on Seventh Street to the James Brown Arena. The 13th Street leg could ultimately be extended north across the Savannah River to North Augusta, South Carolina.
Augusta (also known as Augusta-Richmond County), the largest city in East Central Georgia and the second largest city in the state, is the principal city of the Augusta-Richmond County Metropolitan Statistical Area, with a population somewhat above 528,000. The City of Augusta and Richmond County governments merged operations in 1996, and, as of September 2008, the Augusta-Richmond county population was nearly 193,000. [Wikipedia, 7 July 2009]
As The Transport Politic blog
reports (22 April 2009),
Like most southern cities, [Augusta is] not particularly dense, but its downtown has been growing in recent decades. Though the city has a public transportation service, it is not hugely popular. The board of the downtown development authority, however, thinks that a streetcar line connecting some of the center city’s most popular destinations would be well used and a development booster.
The preliminary investment cost projection for the proposed starter line is about $25 million (although this seems a bit low, when one considers the need for rolling stock and a maintenance/storage facility, as well as the usual infrastructure requirements of track, electric power, and stations).
How would Augusta fund a streetcar startup? "The city lacks a funding mechanism to build the project," notes The Transport Politic blog, "though the downtown development authority could presumably use a transit district tax that would be imposed only on property in areas immediately surrounding the proposed lines." The blog writer further points out that "This taxation system is also proposed for Atlanta's Peachtree Streetcar."
After recently visiting Little Rock's new streetcar system, an official city committee evaluating a similar system for Augusta returned with enthusiasm.
As the Augusta Chronicle recounted in a June 29th article, "The streetcar system started in 2004 and has spawned $400 million in development along the rails."
Little Rock's electric streetcar system (River Rail) provides an excellent model for Augusta and many other cities. Modest initial investment has triggered hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of adjacent investment and transit-oritented development, persuading civic leaders to pursue expansion of system.
"It's an impressive system, what they've done over there," Steve Cassell, Augusta's traffic engineer, told the newspaper. "Talking to some of the developers, they love it. It was something to see to believe. It meshes well in the traffic. We couldn't find anybody who didn't like it."
"You have to look at why they did their trolley" Margaret Woodard, executive director of Augusta's Downtown Development Authority, also commented. "It wasn't for ridership originally; it was mostly as an economic-development tool."
(For more information on Little Rock's streetcar system, see: Little Rock Rail Transit and Public Transport.)
In the historic era of electric railways, electric streetcars ran in Augusta beginning in 1890. In 1928, Georgia Power Company acquired the city's transit operations. Subsequently, in 1937, the streetcar system was abandoned, and operations converted to motor buses, during the Transit Devastation era.
Will an electric streetcar system return to Augusta's streets, and actually materialize as a real project, or will it remain just a civic fantasy? As with so many such proposals, its fate really depends on whether its proponents can persuade public opinion that the benefits far outweigh the costs of investing in such a system and a commitment to the ongoing costs of operating it.
Even a cursory look at the results of streetcar operations in cities like Little Rock, Tampa, Memphis, New Orleans, Kenosha, and Tacoma suggests that investments in such systems are indeed worth the reources and effort. Hopefully, Augusta's decisionmakers – and a majority of the public – will come to a similar conclusion.
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