RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Well, a lot of us would like to dodge the much-dreaded daily commute. Since that's usually not possible, many communities are trying to improve that commute. And we're bringing you some of those solutions on MORNING EDITION. This morning - cities going back to the future with old-fashioned streetcars. They're hoping trolleys will reduce congestion and spur economic development. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports to us from one of those cities, Atlanta.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: A white cloud of dust whips over Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. Workers are moving utility lines, and laying steel rails for a 2.6-mile streetcar 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.
TIMOTHY BORCHERS: We have to have a look at reducing traffic issues. Now, one Atlanta streetcar will take off 197 motor cars from the road.
LOHR: That's Timothy Borchers, executive director of Atlanta Streetcar Project. He grew up in Australia before coming to the U.S. to help develop trolley systems in Memphis, Savannah, St. Louis, Tampa and Tucson.
BORCHERS: 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.
LOHR: Streetcars were popular in many cities in the last century as portrayed in the musical "Meet Me in St. Louis." It was set in that Midwestern city just before the 1904 World's Fair, and starred Judy Garland.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS")
JUDY GARLAND: (as Esther Smith) Are we, are we all here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, it's just too bad for those who aren't. Time, tide and trolley wait for no man. Let her go, Motorman.
LOHR: But trolleys disappeared in most cities as cars flourished, and cities switched to buses and subways for mass transit. In 2001, Portland 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.
CATHERINE ROSS: One of the issues you have is you can't go that last mile.
LOHR: Catherine Ross is head of a Center for Regional Development at Georgia Tech. The last mile means getting people from their last stop on public transit to their final destination. Ross says trolleys are one way to address congestion.
ROSS: 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.
LOHR: 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.
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.
Chef Sonya Jones cracks fresh eggs inside her tiny store, Sweet Auburn Bread Company. She's mixing up one of her favorites, sweet potato cheesecake.
SONYA JONES: And it starts off with cream cheese, of course.
(SOUNDBITE OF A MIXER)
LOHR: She brags about the time President Clinton tasted her delicacy here in the 1990s. She hopes the streetcars will revitalize the area and that the construction is worth it.
JONES: I'm excited about the streetcar project. I'm looking forward to its completion. But I cannot deny that it's caused some challenges for my business. It's quite frustrating.
LOHR: 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.
DAVID LEVINSON: There's a lot of money that you're just putting into the ground that doesn't provide any transportation benefit. It's basically a lot of - let me say is embedded capitol is costly that doesn't make the system work any faster.
LOHR: But officials here 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.
BEN LAMBERT: So it's going to be a tourist thing then. You waste the taxpayers' money, if you ask me.
LOHR: But supporters are banking streetcars will work. Again Timothy Borchers.
BORCHERS: It's what built cities originally and it's what's building cities again.
LOHR: Downtown, near Centennial Olympic Park, the streetcar tracks are taking shape. When the trolleys start operating next spring, it will be what many say is a first step with hopes of expanding the system in the future.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
You can find more of our commuting stories online where you'll also learn that NPR's Ari Shapiro rides his bike to work every day. He put together a list of the music that helps keep him moving, that's at NPRMusic.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, THE TROLLEY SONG)
CHORUS: (Singing) Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. Ding, ding, ding went the bell...
MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.