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Construction Under Way on Atlanta Streetcar Line

Hotlanta takes page out of Nawlin's book with a major transportation move.

Tue June 11, 2013 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley

After years of planning, the Atlanta streetcar project is finally becoming a reality. Construction is under way on the 2.7 mi. (4.3 km) system that, when complete, will cost close to $100 million.

“Actually seeing tracks being laid and sidewalks being rebuilt is thrilling and a major step for the city of Atlanta,” said Tom Weyandt, senior policy advisor of transportation, office of the mayor. “The major federal funding was announced in October 2010, and since then we have been engaged in the final design, contractor selection, real estate and utilities prep work. Now that guideway construction is underway, one can actually get the vision for the final product.”

The Atlanta streetcar will be a Siemens S70 vehicle powered by a single overhead trolley wire. In mid-May, 2013 Siemens Inc. delivered two massive traction power substations (TPSS) which will power part of the streetcar. The TPSS is a 750-volt DC power substation that was commissioned, designed and tested by Siemens. Once installed, the substation will send electric current to the catenary system of overhead wires used to supply electricity to the streetcar. The substation allows the overhead wires to pick up electrical current to power the engines. Each power substation is 40 ft. (12.2 m) long, 14.5 ft. (4.4 m) wide, 11 ft. (3.4 m) tall and weighs 80,000 lbs. (36,287.4 kg).

While enthusiasm is high for the project, it’s already had its share of challenges, according to Weyandt.

“It’s been more complicated than we anticipated. The streetcar is being built in some of the oldest parts of downtown Atlanta connecting the historic Martin Luther King Jr. district and historic Auburn Avenue through the Central Business District to Centennial Olympic Park and back through Fairlie-Poplar. More than 15 different private utilities plus the public water and sewer system have facilities that were impacted to some degree — some rather minor, but others enormously complicated. Some we didn’t discover until we opened the street. In addition, we discovered some basements extending under sidewalks which were previously unknown.

“Since the utilities were often working in many places at once, this was particularly complicated. Now that guideway construction is underway, I think the traffic control issue is easier. It’s still disruptive, but manageable, since the contractor is in and out of relatively small sections of the alignment fairly quickly. The patience of the folks along the route has clearly been tested, but they have been cooperative and eager to see the project happen,” said Weyandt.

As opposed to light rail transit systems that usually run on tracks separated from the roads, streetcars run on rails set into the road surface. Streetcars share the road with private vehicles, but streetcars are an alternative to traveling by bus or car. They’re designed for a top speed of 35 mph, and run parallel with traffic. The streetcar serves short local routes with frequent stops. The 70 percent low-floor area will allow Atlanta’s passengers to board and exit quickly, without obstructions.

Coordination of the utility construction schedule has been handled through Atlanta’s Public Work Department. The department worked with complicated traffic control because of the network of city streets and the interstate highway that cuts across the eastern loop of the alignment. Utility relocations are nearing completion and nearly all rights-of-way have been obtained. About 3,300 ft. (1,005.8 m) of guideway is currently in place, of roughly 15,000 ft. (4,572 m) total. Curbs are being re-set to dramatically improve the sidewalk environment along the East Loop route.

In addition to the streetcar construction the vehicle maintenance facility (VMF) is under construction beneath I-75/85. Four Siemens S70 ultrashort light rail vehicles are completed, and the city expects to have an operator for the streetcar on-board by fall.

The Atlanta streetcar will provide missing circulation and direct connectivity to the existing transit services downtown, as well as future commuter rail and regional light rail.

Material needed to complete the project includes 15,147 linear ft. (4,617 m) of track, 8,000 cu. yds. (6,116.4 cu m) of guideway concrete and 4,500 cu. yds. ( 3,440.5 cu m) of graded aggregate base, overhead contact system poles 252 each, power cable and conduit for traction power 9,045 route ft. (2,757 m) and 15,147 linear ft. of overhead contact wire.

Civil subcontractor C.W. Matthews Contracting Co. Inc. is using Caterpillar equipment that includes an M318 D excavator; a 279D tracked skidsteer with a six-way blade for grading the trench; a 420E with demo tool; a 420E with bucket; a CS56B smooth drum compactor; a 305 mini-excavator with demo tool and bucket; and a 226B skidsteer for general purpose.

Atlanta Paving Company, responsible for asphalt milling and paving, is using an asphalt milling machine and asphalt paver for various tasks. Brooks-Berry-Haynie & Associates, the electrical contractor on the job, is handling OCS pole foundations, traffic signals and traction power conduit. Crews are using a hydrovac truck (a Kenworth body with a custom built hydrovac unit built and operated by Badger Daylighting Inc.), a Yanmar mini-excavator and an Altec line truck.

In addition, rail subcontractor G.W. Peoples Contracting Co. Inc. is relying on a Prentice 2124 loader truck for picking, loading and unloading rail materials. Other equipment used by the company includes a Pettibone 441 for moving or placing rail, an Orgothermic thermite weld kit along with a Geismar web grinder and Geismar profile grinder. The grinder is used to profile thermite welds. GWP is furnishing materials, equipment and labor to install nearly 3 mi. (4.8 kn) of embedded and specialty track. This includes ballasting, clips, fasteners, steel ties, turnouts, storage tracks, switches and specialty hardware in accordance with standards specified in the design.

The streetcar project is a collaborative public-private partnership between the city of Atlanta, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID), and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA). It was created to provide an integrated multi-modal, high-quality transit network linking communities, improving mobility, supporting projected growth, promoting economic development and encouraging strategies to develop livable communities.

Total project costs are estimated to be $98.9 million. This includes all construction for the streetcar and VMF, as well as relocation of the water and sewer system facilities, two additional locally funded vehicles for future system expansion, plus additional grants for pedestrian and road improvements which went beyond the needs of the basic streetcar system.

URS Corporation, headquarted in San Francisco, was awarded the design-build contract. URS, which provides engineering, construction and technical services for public agencies and private sector companies around the world, has been involved in streetcar projects nationwide. This includes projects in Spokane, Seattle, Charlotte and Tampa. The firm has joined with Urban Environmental Solutions and a number of minority or disadvantaged business enterprises based in the Atlanta area for its latest venture.

“The Atlanta streetcar project represents both a new mode of transportation for Atlanta and a renewal of what was an historic transportation system in the city,” said Ed Hrinewski, URS Atlanta streetcar project director. Adding a significant new element like the streetcar to the existing and historic urban fabric requires due care and consideration.”

Hrinewski said heading into the hot summer months won’t be a major issue for construction teams, as rigorous planning takes into account the expected climatic conditions. That doesn’t mean that problems can’t surface in other areas.

“Any major construction project has its own challenges. Designing and building a linear transportation system like the streetcar results in traversing the city streets with a certain impact to the existing infrastructure and also the need to minimize impacts to residents and businesses while at the same time maximizing safety.

“It’s never an easy process to interrupt, even on a temporary basis, normal commuting, pedestrian and traffic patterns. However, by working closely with and under the city’s guidance, we have tried to maintain the necessary flow of traffic and foot travel. Most of the community appears to accept the intrusion of the construction process as a temporary situation leading to an exciting new mode of transit.”

By 2030, it’s projected that downtown Atlanta will experience 5.1 million sq. ft. of retail absorption and an increase of approximately 4.4 million sq. ft. of new office space, because of the Atlanta Streetcar. The modern streetcar, an electrically powered vehicle operating on rails in a street lane with other vehicles, has proven to be a more sustainable and viable alternative to buses, with less noise and fewer emissions. The Atlanta Streetcar will provide improved connectivity between existing MARTA heavy rail, express bus services, planned light rail and locations not well served by other transit options.

In February 2012, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed hosted U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to kick off construction of the new streetcar line. Secretary LaHood had traveled to Atlanta in 2010 to announce more than $47 million in funding for the streetcar project through the transportation department’s second round of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. It was the largest of the capital TIGER II grants awarded that year.

According to Weyandt, carrying out construction in downtown Atlanta is a daily concern. Crews must be aware of their busy surroundings at all times.

“There are residential communities nearby, several historic African-American churches, funeral homes, restaurants and bars plus a historic municipal market, a major public hospital and Georgia State University. There’s also the Atlanta Merchandise Mart complex, one of the largest in the U.S., plus a main tourist and conventioneers walking route from the hotel district to the Georgia World Congress Center and Centennial Olympic Park attractions. Public outreach has been vital to the process and the city and the contractor both had teams to keep communications going. Our private sector partner has been with us every step of the way and assisted especially in outreach to the business community.”

The streetcar links to the MARTA heavy rail system at the Peachtree Center Station and provides the last mi. of connectivity to major business, tourist, health and educational facilities in the downtown community. It also provides a new link for residents of the area to the regional rail system and job opportunities throughout the city and region. The project is the initial segment of a citywide system that eventually will connect to the Atlanta BeltLine and its system of transit, trails, parks and housing using a series of old rail corridors surrounding downtown. The BeltLine and Streetcar systems have been part of city or regional plans for over ten years.

Once operational, there will be twelve stops with an average 15-minute frequency. Operational costs will reportedly be covered by fare box revenue, advertising, ADID, Atlanta car rental and hotel and motel tax in addition to federal funds.

“While station area development has been significant in some places, the problem has always been the last mile access. The streetcar is a cost-effective way to add transit in a dense urban area compared to heavy rail transit,” said Weyandt. “In addition, the fixed guideway nature of the facility is likely to have a positive impact on further encouraging and shaping development in targeted neighborhoods.”

These will be the first streetcars in Atlanta since 1949. Streetcars operated in the city starting with horsecars in 1871, with electric service beginning in the 1880s. Officials hope to have the current rail transit system in place and fully running by early 2014.

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