» Famed inner-city loop will have to wait on the sidelines as downtown streetcar competes for federal TIGER II funds.
Today is the deadline for applications to the second phase of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER program, which provides multi-million dollar grants to transportation projects around the nation based on merit. Cities are likely to submit several billion dollars of proposed projects to compete for a $600 million pot. Unlike the first round, in which Tucson, Detroit, and Dallas received funding for their streetcar lines without having to allocate local funds, this time municipalities are required to contribute 20% of the estimated cost of the program.
Atlanta has chosen to submit a 2.6-mile streetcar line for consideration this time. Of total estimated costs of $72 million, the city hopes the federal government will chip in $52 million; the city and the downtown development district have each agreed to pay $10 million. The rail link will serve as an east-west connector right downtown between the Centennial Olympic Park and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, mostly along Edgewood and Auburn Avenues east of downtown. With significant local funding, more than 2,000 estimated daily riders, and the potential to encourage transit-oriented development around Georgia State University and the historic Sweet Auburn, this project is well positioned to win a grant from the U.S. DOT.
Atlanta’s previous application for the first round of TIGER grants, a $300 million proposal to bring streetcars from downtown to Arts Center along Peachtree Street, was rejected due to its duplication of the existing MARTA rapid transit route and its lack of a local funding commitment.
Like many cities applying for similar transportation funds from the federal government, Atlanta has had to prioritize. In this city’s case, though, that prioritization comes to the detriment of one of the nation’s most innovative projects: The Beltline. Unlike the proposed streetcar, which in most ways mirrors similar programs across the country, the Beltline advances a different way of thinking about how to build transportation.
Indeed, if the so-called Capital of the New South does not get money from the TIGER II program, it will be thanks to the decision to find U.S. dollars for the Beltline later rather than now. This project has for the past several years at least appeared to be the city’s transportation priority. What happened? Are city council members suffering from a case of attention deficit disorder?
The Beltline — a $2.8 billion, 22-mile trail/light rail line/development engine — appears to fit perfectly the guidelines of the TIGER program, which is supposed to support innovative thinking about transportation investments. Will Atlanta being doing anything different if it spends on a streetcar?
On the other hand, the Beltline really is different than anything else proposed in a U.S. city. Using a series of mostly abandoned freight rail corridors extending in a loop around the city center, the program would produce an elongated necklace of parks, trails, and recreation facilities. Running on roughly the same corridor would be a transit system, likely light rail, providing circumferential movement between the MARTA branch lines.
The Beltline organization agreed not to submit its demand for $13 million in trail elements to the TIGER program in order to improve the city’s chances of winning money for the streetcar.
From one perspective, this was an admirable decision, since the streetcar is closer to being shovel-ready than the Beltline transit element, whose mode choice has not even been made yet. Just as important, since the Beltline is a much larger project than the streetcar it may be able to qualify for the federal government’s New Start major transit capital projects program in the future, once more study of transportation mode alternatives has been completed.
But the U.S. DOT sponsored trail programs in the previous TIGER grants; if this is what can be done for the Beltline now, that’s worth something since it helps begin the necessary future flow of U.S. money into the program. Is it unfair to point out that Atlanta hasn’t exactly been at the cutting edge of public transportation over the past two decades, and that it may have trouble advancing two new rail programs simultaneously? That’s especially concerning considering the city’s plans to extend the streetcar up Peachtree Street. Which does the city value more: The groundbreaking Beltline or the like-so-many-other-cities streetcar?
I may, however, be asking an unfair question. Georgia is advancing rapidly towards approving a measure that would allow Atlantans to vote themselves a regional one-cent sales tax specifically designed to pay for transit expansion projects. Of the $5 billion that could be raised over the next ten years, up to 60% could be earmarked for transit. That would make building both the streetcar and the Beltline perfectly possible.