One impediment to streetcar construction in DC is that our local lords of historic preservation have decreed that there can be no overhead wires in the so-called “L’Enfant City” — the original planned City of Washington that includes the bulk of the offices and so forth. It’s worth pointing out that historic central cities in Europe seem to have no problem incorporating modern trams into their landscape.What got me thinking is the overhead wire issue. For those unaware, Atlanta used to have a very active and popular streetcar system. You can see a map of the streetcar system from the 1940's here; it went pretty much everywhere in the inner ring of suburbs (Emory, Decatur, East Atlanta, Grant Park, Piedmont Park/Midtown, West End). I personally am a fan, and would love to see more streetcars; I'd even love to resurrect as many of the old routes as possible since they tend to run along the very commercial districts that are now popular (Virginia Highlands, EAV, Little Five Points, even along Memorial Avenue by the cemetery).
About a year ago I was talking to a family friend, a man about my parents' age. A great guy, a history of involvement with the public process, neighborhood development, and a man with a love for the city of Atlanta. He is one of the few people I know who actually got rid of the big house in Morningside where he'd lived since the 1970's and moved into a condo on Peachtree Street in Midtown. (Most folks I know simply talk about doing it and don't follow through.) So I consider the guy pretty enlightened when it comes to having a vision of how Atlanta needs to grow, what sort of city it is and can be.
We got to talking about streetcars, and I expressed how I thought we needed to resurrect the old system. He got very animated in opposition to this idea for a simple reason - overhead electric lines. He simply believed that a streetcar system which used overhead wires to power the cars was backward looking, ugly, and would ultimately fail. I of course found it hard to argue in favor of overhead wires - they are indeed ugly and obtrusive. I mostly felt that he was overstating their impact.
I think I was wrong, however. His reaction has not been rare, in my experience. When I was working for a senator in the state legislature, we worked on legislation to create a state-level funding mechanism to channel federal streetcar funds to local pilot programs if/when they were ever available. We had a lot of pushback from other legislators because they didn't like the idea of clanging trolleys and overhead wires. (Nevermind that a representative from Vidalia doesn't need to be concerned with overhead wires in Atlanta... methinks there was some other politiking involved.) Anyway, I was surprised at how a single floor speech decrying clanging and overhead wires could muck up legislation.
I believe that San Fransisco's cable car system does not have overhead wires. It seems pretty clear to me in this picture. You can see that the power comes through a third channel between he two guide rails. Obviously there are lots of considerations, such as cost and speed, but I think that any streetcar proposal should start out talking about cable car system (or any modern equivalent that exists) to just take the overhead wire talking point off the table.
This is all pretty pointless, of course, since the Atlanta Streetcar initiative has been pretty dead lately. It got wrapped up in the mayor's Peachtree Street Taskforce, but I haven't heard peep about that in maybe a year. I'm pretty sure streetcars are a pipe dream for Atlanta, with or without overhead lines.