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Recycling on the River
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WHAT'S NEW on River Street? Think recycling.

Last Friday’s presentation by City of Savannah staff on the status of the River Street Streetcar offers another way for locals and visitors to embrace the green lifestyle.

Curbside trash recycling is scheduled to begin citywide early in 2009, but the River Street streetcar is a recycling project of a different sort, and looks like it will start sooner. Instead of sorting bottles and cans, the city is converting a historic, early 20th century streetcar into a state-of-the-art hybrid.

“We’re turning [the streetcar] into a 2008 light rail vehicle with ADA compliance while still looking like a 1935 vehicle,” said Sean Brandon, Director of Mobility and Parking for the city.

The first River Street run is still weeks or months down the track, but if all goes as the City hopes, it’s likely that this Christmas, Santa will arrive on the river by streetcar instead of via eight tiny reindeer.

It could be said that the idea of a waterfront streetcar goes back decades. When architect Eric Meyerhoff drew up the first plans for River Street’s Rousakis Plaza in the early 1970’s, a streetcar to transport visitors appeared in the project renderings. But in 1974, who could anticipate a vintage streetcar powered by a dual diesel-electric mechanical system?

The city’s refurbished 73-year-old streetcar is a W-5 model that spent its first 45 years carrying passengers through the streets of Melbourne, Australia. After being decommissioned in 1980, it found its way to Iowa, before being purchased in 2000 by the City of Savannah in anticipation of its use on River Street. Until recently, the W-5 was stored at the Roundhouse Railroad Museum. (source:

The streetcar has undergone a complete reconstruction at two facilities in Altoona and Warren, Pennsylvania. The paint, the wood, the windows and the seats are being restored or replaced with historically accurate replica components.

The streetcar’s original mechanical elements have been scrapped altogether. Instead of running on electricity provided from overhead lines, Savannah’s streetcar will be self-propelled, fueled by a custom designed engine using diesel fuel and generators. Two state-of-the-art wheelchair lifts have been added as part of the updating process.

“It’s like a Toyota Prius on steroids,” said Gary Landrio, consultant for the project.

Once it returns to Savannah from Pennsylvania, the River Street Streetcar will travel a short route compared to its round the world history, moving east-to-west-to-east for two thirds of a mile along the River Street train tracks, between the Waving Girl statue and the M.L. King Jr. Blvd. Ramp.

Cruising speed will be five to ten miles per hour. The 47-foot-long vehicle holds about 80 people, seated and standing.

Squeezing the diesel engine, the generators, and the two wheelchair lifts into the relatively small vintage car wasn’t easy, according to Landrio. From a space saving and energy saving point of view, the engineers chose to leave out an otherwise popular contemporary feature—air conditioning.

“It takes a lot of energy to cool it,” said Landrio. “The doors open continually. It uses too much power, we couldn’t fit it in.” Windows that open and a system of roof vents are expected to reduce the summer heat.

As another energy saving idea, the city is debating the plusses and minuses of using recycled vegetable oil as an alternative to the diesel fuel. “It could be done. We’ve had some discussions with Refuel Savannah [a local biofuel company],” said Brandon, who noted that biofuels would only be considered after the streetcar engine’s one year warranty has expired.

The restored streetcar’s $207,000 price tag is one way that the City is saving money by buying recycled.

“If this vehicle were brand new construction it would be over a million dollars,” said Brandon, “but, the difference is it’s a vintage overhaul.”