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Grease is the word
New eco-friendly waterfront streetcar is powered partially by local restaurant byproducts

IT'S AMAZING what a makeover can do for a 70-year-old. Roll on a fresh coat of paint and replace her worn-out innards with sparkling new Space-Age parts, and this 70-year-old is racing over the cobblestones at up to 25 miles per hour.

Meet the long-awaited, highly anticipated River Street streetcar.

The streetcar, which dates to 1938, made its public debut Dec. 9 as part of the Climate Action Parade, an event timed to coincide with National Climate Action Week. The city’s fleet of alternative-fuel vehicles was paraded down River Street to demonstrate the city’s commitment to alternative transportation.

But it wasn’t the bicycles or electric scooters, the pumper or SUV that were turning heads. It was the streetcar, resplendent in green and gold, that had shopkeepers running out to wave and tourists snapping pictures.

The 47-foot streetcar is handicapped accessible and part of the city’s Dot system, a fare-free downtown transportation system that includes the Dot Express Shuttle, which circulates through the Historic District, and the Savannah Belles Ferries, which takes passengers to Hutchinson Island.

Timothy R. Borchers, a streetcar specialist with TranSystems of Warren, Penn., designed the upgrade. He says the streetcar was originally part of a fleet in Melbourne, Australia.

“It probably saw a million miles on its 120-mile route,” Borchers said. “Along with its 750 sister and brother streetcars.”

The streetcar eventually made its way to Savannah, where it spent several years in storage at the Roundhouse Railroad Museum. But the intent was always that it would eventually make its way to River Street to roll again.

In remarks made before the streetcar’s run, Mayor Otis Johnson spoke about the city’s sustainability efforts and endorsed the National Climate Action Blueprint. He also discussed the city’s own Thrive Initiative, a plan to reduce the Savannah City Government’s carbon footprint by 15 percent by the year 2020.

Johnson said the city council met two years ago to discuss sustainability. “At that time, we said the city should be a leader in defining what that term means,” he said. “With the help of city staff, we found a way to determine what our carbon footprint was.”

Shortly after, the ICLEI issued a challenge to local governments, asking them to reduce their carbon footprints by 2020. “We were the first in the state to accept the challenge,” Johnson said. “We’re doing a lot of things to reduce our dependence on oil.”

Stuber, who serves on the National Executive Committee of Climate Communities, said he began working in Savannah in the mid-1970s, when raw sewage was still being dumped into the Savannah River. He said Coastal Refinery was the first local company to recycle, by reprocessing waste lube oil in the 1970s.

“At the national level, we’re laying out the proposed agenda for the new president,” Stuber said. “It’s going to be significant — a green revolution — and this city is committed to being green.”

About 250 municipalities are involved in Climate Communities, Stuber said. “Fifty of them are putting on demonstrations this week,” he said. “(Savannah’s) is the most significant of all 50.”

Johnson, Stuber and aldermen Jeff Felser, Tony Thomas and Mary Osborne took turns to symbolically fuel the streetcar, then climbed onboard for her maiden voyage. “I hope it’s not like the Titanic,” Osborne joked.

“It smells like chicken fingers to me,” Stuber said as he took his turn at the pump.

Felser bounced on the seats and swung from the rail like a kid on his first trip to the big city. Thomas shared anecdotes of his family’s railroading history. Everyone on board grinned as the car began to roll.

The city is billing the streetcar as “the first hybrid streetcar in North America.” It runs on the rails that were already in place on River Street, but is fueled with B20 biodiesel.

That fuel is produced locally by Refuel Savannah, owned by Jake and Rachel Hodesh and Brad Baugh. But here’s the best part — the formula incorporates in part grease collected from the very River Street restaurants the streetcar will pass.

Jake Hodesh said Refuel Savannah collects used vegetable oil from restaurants throughout the city, then cleans it, filters it and blends it with petroleum diesel. The result is a fuel that has fewer emissions than petroleum diesel, and is made from a renewable resource.

“It is non-toxic and contains no petroleum, but can be blended with petroleum at any level,” Hodesh said. “For Savannah, that means less pollution and more local jobs. Savannah can serve as a model for other cities.”

Testing of the streetcar on River Street and the one-mile stretch of track east of River Street will continue until the street car goes online, he said.

“We’re doing extensive safety testing,” Borchers says. “Yes, there were bugs, but they’re gone.”

Residents were given a chance to ride the streetcar on Saturday, Dec. 13. The streetcar is run by a motorman, who drives with the controls at one end of the streetcar. When the streetcar reaches the opposite end of River Street, the motorman walks through it to the other set of controls and starts over. There will be about 20 round trips made per day, Borchers said.

Standing in as the streetcar’s motorman for its first run was Gary E. Landrio, assistant vice president of TranSystems. Turns out there’s more to operating a streetcar than just making it go.

“It takes practice,” Landrio said. “You’ve got to get a feel for it.”

Landrio’s own love of streetcars began 40 years ago. “I found them to be an interesting form of transportation,” he said. “I questioned in my youth why they were getting rid of them.”

The streetcar is expected to open to the public in mid-January. The first 40,000 passengers will ride for free, but after that, a cost of 50 cents per round trip will be implemented.

The new attraction is expected to be highly popular, judging from the reactions of people who have seen it being tested. Laughs Borchers, “Our biggest problem is the number of people who stop us and want to ride.” cs