» Resurgent city plans major transit expansion in the form of streetcar and light rail lines, but will they serve its growing population well?
When Atlanta hosted the Olympics in 1996, it had the chance to project itself as the epitome of progress in the New South. But the city was sick. Despite massive growth in its suburbs, Atlanta had been losing population since 1970. The Games were marred by poorly planned transit service and a bombing that killed two people and injured 100 others. The year before, the city had been rated the most dangerous in the United States.
Atlanta rebuilt itself quickly into the capital of the South after it was destroyed during the Civil War by General William T. Sherman, who described it later: “Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.” The Atlanta of the early 20th century was dense and active, vibrating with business and public enterprise at the height of contemporary modernity. Now more than ever, the metropolis has the potential to be remade into the walkable and exciting city it once was. Its population reached 540,000 last year, a historic peak. Crime is down dramatically, and redevelopment has taken hold in neighborhoods from Buckhead to the West End. The city’s three skylines in downtown, midtown, and Buckhead are bursting with activity. But this growth needs to be put in order to create a livable city through the effective use of public transportation.
Last week, the city of Atlanta applied for $300 million in stimulus funds for the construction of a new streetcar in downtown and midtown. The U.S. Department of Transportation will make a decision on whether to allocate money for the project by February, and if it is approved, it could be complete by early 2012. The first phase of the Peachtree Corridor Streetcar would extend roughly three miles north-south on Peachtree and 1.5 miles east-west between downtown and the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Sweet Auburn. The program is to be implemented by a group called Georgia Transit Connector, which expects 12,000 to 17,700 daily trips.
Though the streetcar project would be the first major transit expansion within Atlanta city limits since the Bankhead Station on the MARTA Proctor Creek Branch opened in 1992, the city has a number of other plans under active consideration. Most prominent is the Beltline, which would bring light rail to 22 miles of (mostly) inactive railroads ringing the city’s core. The $2.8 billion project has the strong support of current Mayor Shirley Franklin and most of the city’s other politicians. Its primary objectives would be to leverage brownfields adjacent to the improved line for new development (including 5,600 units of affordable housing) by improving public transportation, building 30 miles of trails, and creating 1,200 acres of new green space. It is one of the most innovative plans for using transit as a redevelopment tool in the country.
That’s not it, of course: MARTA has studied a number of proposals including a new bus rapid transit line on I-20, a light rail corridor along Clifton Road, and several suburban expansions of the existing heavy rail lines. The recent Connect Atlanta plan plans for a city with a population of 800,000 by 2030 with densities in the city core of 12,000 people per square mile compared to 3,500 today. It recommends a 5-mile east-west line on the north side of the city, the covering of freeway interchanges downtown, and the better connection of roads to make a more efficient street grid.
These ideas, however, do not do enough to take advantage of the city’s existing resources.
The north-south segment of the proposed streetcar, the project city officials have pushed forward as their top priority, is the most problematic, because it duplicates existing service on MARTA’s main north-south line between Five Points and Arts Center. Its three miles of stops would be just two blocks away from MARTA’s closely spaced stations, which are only about half a mile apart in this part of the city. While the streetcar would encourage growth on the already dense Peachtree Street corridor, it should not be the first new transit line for Atlanta.
Indeed, a streetcar line running north from Arts Center station to Brookhaven-Oglethorpe station along Peachtree Street and Road would have the advantage of providing public transportation to currently under-served neighborhoods and increasing connectivity along MARTA’s existing routes. This has been mentioned as a second phase of the first streetcar line. Such a line would run through the heart of rapidly expanding Buckhead, both north and south of the existing MARTA station, and reinforce plans to remake the neighborhood into a walkable place. It would connect to Piedmont Hospital where it could link with future Beltline service, and it would provide direct service to the Amtrak station north of Arts Center. This seven-mile line could extend Buckhead’s growth south and east and push Midtown to the north, allowing for the replacement of several downtrodden strip centers along the street.
Although the east-west streetcar line proposed by city officials would improve connectivity among Atlanta’s top tourist areas, its 1.5-mile length makes it too short to be of much use. Indeed, what if it were extended north to serve the intown communities west of the Downtown Connector highway? A four-mile extension would bring the streetcar north on Luckie Street past Coca-Cola headquarters, along Tech Parkway through the center of Georgia Tech, and north on Northside Drive, where there a number vacant properties waiting for new use. Most importantly, though, this line would return east on 16th or 17th Streets to Arts Center, passing through Atlantic Station, one of the country’s largest urban development projects.
Connected, these proposals would create a 12.5-mile streetcar that would provide a valuable transit expansion in the inner city, acting as a counterpart to both the Beltline and existing MARTA lines. A Peachtree line between midtown and downtown could come later.
But these plans will need adequate funding. As Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood put it last week during a visit to Atlanta, “There has to be a commitment by state government that transit is important.” When Georgia decides to bring mass transit to the front burner, and when the city finds itself willing to devote more tax funds to transportation improvements, the city’s potential as a modern, livable city will be reached once again.