Both have more to do with trying to move money than with moving people or freight.
Neither proposal is new. But both resurfaced this week — the interstate because a feasibility study for the project is now under way, the streetcar because its supporters applied for a second round of federal grants for transit projects.
Let’s look at each one.
The highway, dubbed I-3 in honor of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Stewart near Savannah, was pushed in the mid-2000s by two then-members of Congress from Georgia: Reps. Max Burns and Charlie Norwood.
We certainly need to route traffic, particularly cargo, around Atlanta to reduce congestion here. But a new interstate from Savannah to Knoxville promises little improvement.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a route that’s significantly shorter than just going through South Carolina on the existing I-95, I-26 and I-40.
Georgia has already spent more than $250 million four-laning a path between Augusta and Savannah, perhaps the most justifiable segment of I-3. But the highway’s proponents have hardly bothered to try to justify it on what you might call transportation grounds.
Instead, they speak mostly of the economic development the freeway might bring to the eastern part of the state. I hope they don’t mean the kind of economic development that has so far eluded I-16 between Macon and Savannah, and I-185 on the way to Columbus.
Transportation dollars will remain scarce, even if regions pass the new one-penny sales tax that the Legislature approved this spring. They must go toward the projects that will improve mobility the most.
That happens to be the best way to attract investment, too, a lesson that also seems lost on those Atlantans pushing the streetcar project.
Tourists would be the biggest beneficiaries of the streetcar, which would run from the aquarium, alongside Centennial Olympic Park, through Fairlie-Poplar, and finally down Auburn Avenue to historic sites from the civil rights era.
Nothing against tourists, but Atlanta’s biggest congestion headaches come from commuting, not tourism, and generally are on highways, not downtown surface streets.
And never mind that MARTA already runs a subway line that comes within a couple of blocks of most of the major destinations, is canceling a little-used bus route that’s very similar to the proposed streetcar’s path, and discontinued a previous tourist trolley in the same area due to poor ridership.
The broader plan also calls for a trolley line along Peachtree Street, north to Brookhaven and south toward Fort McPherson. It’s central to an attempt to create Atlanta’s version of the Champs-Élysées in Paris or Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
Both streets are wonderful, famous — and lack streetcars. Which is inconvenient for the argument that Peachtree needs a streetcar to emulate them.
The Peachtree Streetcar is a prestige project that developers, of course, love. To the degree that it addresses commuting, our biggest transportation need, it casts an eye toward the problems of future residents who might opt to live in a more dense urban setting. Or might not; we don’t know yet.
What we do know is that the “last mile” for real congestion relief lies not on Peachtree, but probably somewhere in Cobb, Gwinnett or north Fulton.
Both I-3 and the streetcar would be swell ideas if we had transportation cash to burn. We don’t. The money we do have needs to chase travelers, not developers.