On the fourth floor of City Hall, Tim Borchers is standing on a chair.
The stocky Australian is pointing out on a five-foot-wide map hanging high above his desk an often-overlooked advantage of the Downtown streetcar's route: the 2.7-mile line carving a figure-eight between Centennial Olympic Park and the King Center is actually several potential routes. Should one of the $92 million system's four vehicles experience electrical problems, a car break down on the rail, or an emergency be declared in its vicinity, the vehicle could bypass the obstacle simply by connecting at one of several points. He's excited, he's gesturing with his arms, and, as he starts talking about other features, he realizes he's standing on his chair.
In early 2013, the 52-year-old was living the life of a streetcar consultant in Tampa. Cities around the world have been embracing the transit mode, which means there's plenty of work. But then a persistent executive headhunter started calling about managing Atlanta's upstart streetcar program. And calling. And started having conversations with Borchers' answering machine. So he gave the headhunter — and the city — a chance.
The lifelong transit professional's career began as a teenage mechanic fixing trams in Bendigo, Australia, a system he ultimately managed, and has taken him around the world. Most recently, he oversaw Tampa's light-rail system. The husband and father of one (with another child on the way) now lives in a Downtown condo overlooking the project that consumes his waking hours. If things go according to plan, this summer the line also will be closely watched by transit fans and critics across metro Atlanta and the country.
When Borchers, whose official title is deputy commissioner of public works, came on board last April, the streetcar was running into budget overruns and delays, thanks mostly to an unexpected spaghetti-mess of underground utility lines that needed to be moved to lay rail. He "tidied things up," formed teams to focus on specific tasks, and grouped a utility relocation expert with the project's construction contractor CEO. Construction is now 82 percent complete. Borchers is currently focusing on the myriad activities that the public might not notice when the streetcar starts rolling but which are vitally important — fare schedule, pricing to rent the vehicles for weddings and special events, even operator uniforms.
"The tip of the iceberg is the track and the cars running," Borcher says. "But the real work is below the water."
No opening date has been decided, but Borchers has a mandate to start testing the vehicles on the street by April 30. Once the streetcar starts rolling with passengers, additional challenges will come. He predicts the city will need more vehicles to meet high demand, which he says is "a good problem to have." Adding streetcars to the fleet might address another expected problem: 15-minute waits for a ride, approximately the same amount of time it takes to walk the route.
For the first three months of operations, streetcar rides are expected to be free. After that, each ride will cost $1, but no one will be charged more than $3 a day.
That introductory freebie isn't just a thank you to the residents and businesses who endured construction and are helping to fund the system, it's also a way to address what will be one of the project's biggest challenges: getting Atlantans used to the streetcar. The average resident has ridden MARTA, but the new transit line will require some education for the public. The streetcar team will coordinate a marketing push, replete with educational videos, visits to schools, community groups, and senior citizen centers, to inform people how to ride their bikes near streetcar rails, push their wheelchair onto vehicles, and use the line to reconnect with Downtown.
Borchers daydreams about the transit line becoming a popular route that could create a Beale Street atmosphere, attract mixed-use development, and get cars off the road. The transit, line designed in part to help shuttle tourists, could become a tourist attraction itself. Downtown's east-west route is the first segment of a proposed intown streetcar network. If the transit line is successful, and if funding becomes available, it could be expanded through the city and connected to the nearby Atlanta Beltline in the coming decades.
Borchers says such a grand view is always in his sights, but for now, he's focusing on the lone objective that he scribbled on the dry-erase board on his office wall the day he started the job: "To plan, construct, and operate the best streetcar system in the United States."
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