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Editor's Note: A streetcar named — ah, screw it
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I'M THANKFUL for a lot of things this season. One of them, for the purposes of this column, is that things are apparently going well enough in Savannah for us to consider high-profile projects that perhaps we shouldn't be considering.

It's a sign of economic confidence and well-being that we're always thinking big here in this smallish city, always punching above our weight. The optimist in me keeps telling myself that, anyway.

So, streetcars. Let's talk about streetcars.

Who doesn't love streetcars? I know I do. New Orleans, San Francisco. Not too many things more romantic in the ol' urban setting than a delightful throwback streetcar, eh?

Acknowledging the near-universal theoretical appeal of a wood-paneled streetcar — and maybe, just maybe, positioning themselves for future relevance as their bread-and-butter services continue to face ridership and budgeting difficulties — Chatham Area Transit is proposing not just one but two streetcar lines on the westside of Savannah.


To be clear: Development is coming to the Westside whether CAT's a part of it or not. Thanks to the extension of SPLOST earlier this month, the once-mythical new arena will almost certainly be a reality.

Make no mistake, I'll have some fun in the years to come saying "I told you so" when there are huge arena cost overruns, conflicts of interest with politically well-connected high-bidding contractors, and another property tax increase to cover another sales tax shortfall, a property tax increase which was threatened specifically to get you to pass SPLOST so you wouldn't have another property tax increase.

But hey, the voters have spoken, as the line goes.

The bigger component of the Westside renaissance is the emergence of several major hotel projects coming to the area. I don't believe the wildly inflated "official" tourism figures for Savannah anymore than I believe Oswald was the lone gunman, but at some point arguing over the numbers is an exercise in futility.

We can all agree there's a crap ton of tourists coming here — that is the official term, I believe — more than in years past and more of them to come, and they'll need beds to sleep in.

Thing is, unlike with streetcars, there's an actual need for new hotels downtown. Current vacancy in the area on busy weekends is close to zero.

Now, I'm not one of the people who say taxpayers should only fund things that are "needed." Variety is the spice of life, and aesthetics, the built environment, and quality of life are as crucial to a city's sense of civic well-being and identity as filling in the potholes.

But at some point every project must pass the smell test. This one's a little gamey.

In a nutshell, CAT's proposal involves two parallel north/south lines, one on MLK and one on Fahm Street, in the same exact sector of the northwest quadrant, bounded by Gwinnett to the south.

The tiny showpiece River Street line would remain and interconnect with them. And of course a spur is envisioned to serve the new arena, in an area now notorious for squalor and high crime, a situation the arena is intended to somehow improve.

Much of the funding would come through a so-called Tax Allocation District, essentially a tool to leverage property values and reinvest taxes into that area. TADs are tricky and by no means a guarantee of success; Eastside has one to "fund" Savannah River Landing, and we see how well that's gone.

My own admittedly cynical take, based on nothing but instinct, is that the proposed almost-bizarre oversaturation of streetcar service in one corner of our little town has more to do with how big CAT thinks they can get the City to agree to make the TAD — and with how much stuff they can pack inside of it — than with any proven demand for streetcars.

(And does anyone else get the impression that Savannah River Landing and the Eastside were forgotten way too quickly in the rush to replicate the same concept on the Westside? That whole situation is long past due being addressed, isn't it?)

But to me the biggest problem with the streetcar proposal at the human level is that Savannah should be walked. It's not only a very walkable city in terms of aesthetic, design, and climate, it's just plain little. Our downtown is simply not daunting enough to require a maze of streetcars.

New Orleans and San Francisco have thriving streetcar lines, yes. But in New Orleans they're used for everyday transportation from one part of the city to another, not just by tourists but by regular New Orleanians going to and from jobs and colleges, in non-walkable commutes.

As for San Francisco, it's a tighter area, but, you know, hills. God, those hills. And clearly a much, much higher volume of tourists, regardless of whatever imaginative figures are bandied about.

Here, streetcars would be little more than a fun novelty. Nothing wrong with fun novelties... but you'll be paying for it.

No, Savannah, dear little Savannah, should be walked. Or for us locals, biked (see our double bill of bicycling stories this issue, from John Bennett and Lee Heidel).

If CAT has patronage problems now — with bus lines that are needed to provide commute options for those without cars — what kind of patronage problems will they see with mutually competitive streetcar lines dependent on a mix of SCAD students (who usually walk or bike and also have access to SCAD shuttles) and tourists in a spate of Westside hotels?

Everyone loves a streetcar. But everyone should also understand the difference between need and... desire?