Atlanta prepares plan for streetcar safety



ATLANTA - A streetcar death in Philadelphia last week highlighted a big concern of streetcar leaders here: How to keep people on the roads safe when they share it with a streetcar that weighs in at nearly 100,000 pounds.

Rolling tests of the Atlanta streetcar could begin as early as this month, but streetcar leaders told Channel 2 Action News a public awareness campaign is needed to avoid hundreds of accidents or even deaths.

CHART: Streetcar accidents by city

Channel 2 Action News anchor John Bachman dug into accident statistics in seven other cities that have modern streetcars, and found 166 injury accidents over a two-year period and two deaths.

Bachman traveled to Portland, Oregon, the first city to get the modern streetcar, to learn how they handle streetcar safety.

Portland’s streetcar started in 2001 and now has 14.7 miles of track. Atlanta’s track is 2.7 miles.

Bachman found 10 injury accidents in the past two years, but none were fatal. 

A streetcar official in Portland told Bachman many of the accidents have something in common.

“Most of the crashes involve a car that went through a red light. Most of the time they're car operator error, almost all of them," said Kay Dannen, Community Relations manager for the Portland Streetcar Project.

Atlanta will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on insurance and spare parts for its streetcars. The streetcar budget includes nearly $100,000 for a special crane to put the streetcar back on the track after a crash. 

Tom Weyandt, the deputy chief operating officer for the city of Atlanta, told Bachman he hoped the special equipment won’t be needed.

"My hope that they will simply gather cobwebs. We'll just have a safe and enjoyable experience here,” Weyandt said.

Atlanta’s streetcar will go through Georgia State University’s campus. Portland built a similar path through Portland State University.

"There was a huge concern that we would have students on their iPad, on their iPhone, carrying their books, walking across the tracks back and forth,” Dannen said.

The streetcar project in Portland sent out fliers and posted signs to remind students to be careful around the streetcar. That’s a strategy Atlanta leaders told Bachman they plan to use as well.

Bike riders were another high risk group in cities that built streetcars. In Portland alone, a bike advocacy group started tracking the number of times cyclists wrecked their bikes on the streetcar tracks.

"We've collected over 180 crash reports from folks throughout this city who have had an issue with the tracks and have crashed and ended up with anything from minor scrapes and bruises to broken collar bones," said cycling activist Steve Bozzone.

In Tucson, a woman filed a lawsuit for more than $3 million after she fell off her bike on the streetcar tracks. Her attorney claimed she suffered a traumatic brain injury.

Atlanta officials told Bachman they hoped that kind of thing won’t happen here. 

Weyandt said, "It would be foolish to say we will be accident free, but we're confident that if we educate people enough both the drivers and pedestrians we can have a good safe start to this."


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