Atlanta Streetcar

For Now, Atlanta Opts to Promote Streetcar Starter Line Over Beltline

» 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.

32 replies on “For Now, Atlanta Opts to Promote Streetcar Starter Line Over Beltline”

Maybe I’m not understanding something here, but doesn’t the whole idea of an intra-suburban Beltline LRT run completely contrary to standard transit doctrine — building centralized transit corridors? I thought the idea is that they should all run to the city center to bolster a downtown.

It would make sense for a beltline streetcar line in that a lot of people in the suburbs do have to go to other suburbs and not the city core so it would make streetcars and light rail more intersting to them in that they can go right into the suburb they want to go to then going into the core of the city and out again. So it is a good project on that idea. I kind of think though they need to move the new streetcar line farther away from the Metra Lines in that the metra lines are already there.

This doesn’t really connect suburbs with suburbs. It’s hard to tell from the map, but the scale is very small.

The Beltline would serve as an inner ring that stays within about a mile-and-a-half of the downtown/midtown linear core (which isn’t really that dense to begin with).

I spent six years living in Atlanta (in Midtown), and I return every several weeks for work (in Buckhead, outside the Beltline loop). For the life of me, I can’t imagine how I would have ever used a route that follows the Beltline with where the residential and commercial product is currently developed in Atlanta. Hopefully once/if the Beltline is built, residential and destination facilities would be constructed along it creating demand (much as the DC Metro’s Orange Line created demand in Arlington where it was previously low density in nature), but right now, it’s essentially a transit line to nowhere. There’s no density anywhere near it except for the occasional node like Lindbergh.

The city would be much better served by a north-south streetcar along Peachtree along northern Midtown and Buckhead (which doesn’t duplicate MARTA), and with a few crosstown routes like 10th Street/Virginia Avenue, North Avenue, and Edgewood Avenue (the last one as submitted to TIGER II).

The Beltline – $2.8 billion price tag.

The entire pot of money available in TIGER II: $600 million.

The streetcar project represents a dollar amount the city thinks is realistic. As it is, $52 million would represent a fairly large chunk of the entire TIGER II pot.

How much Beltline construction could they actually do with just $52 million? Not much. The streetcar at least offers a discrete project that’s within the scope of the funding sources available.

The Beltline misses connecting with MARTA lines in the south and west, and connects in the north and east only with large detours that will significantly increase travel times. Even New York’s G Train does a better job connecting with radial lines. Furthermore, rather than serving a dense, congested district with expensive parking like most successful transit lines, it serves residential and suburban areas with spare road capacity and free parking. Remind me why anyone thinks this project is a good idea?

Good point – it would make more sense to add an extra couple of stations onto MARTA so the LRT didn’t have to detour. At least the north actualyl connects (and a major attractor as well), whereas the south doesn’t at all.

“Citizens for Progressive Transit is pleased to present its “World-Class Transit Vision” for the Atlanta region. The map pictured below is one scenario for the expansion of transit in Atlanta into a system that is befitting for a city of Atlanta’s size and growing stature…”

I’m beginning to believe Atlanta is the home of dopey transit ideas. This streetcar line is of little use to commuters. What it does is connect Centennial Olympic Park with the MLK historic district, which are two tourist attractions. That’s nice, but not particularly useful, even for tourists. Many tourists come for conventions at the Georgia World Congress, fly in and rent a car or take a taxi to a Downtown, Midtown or Buckhead hotel. They generally take a private shuttle bus to the GWC. This doesn’t really help any of them unless they decide to walk a few blocks to go to catch the trolley to the MLK area. That can’t be all that many people….maybe a fake wood tour “trolley” could do the job.

The line goes right between through the Georgia State Univ campus, but will be of little use to the students. It runs 90 degrees to the flow of students on campus and most student commuters use the nearby MARTA stop or park remotely and use the free campus shuttle.

The main downtown area is already pretty well connected to the suburbs by MARTA and suburban commuter buses. This line does nothing to get many of them any closer to the front door of their workplace.

The biggest crying need for transit in Atlanta is getting Atlantic Station, Coca-Cola and Georgia Tech connected to midtown and downtown. They are now isolated by the “river” that is I-75/85 with nothing but typical, sparse MARTA bus service.

Atlantic Station is a terrefic mixed use development that is connected to MARTA rail by one bus route and frequent (and frequently packed) shuttle vans. Georgia Tech has thousands of students with out cars living on campus and they are tenuously connected to MARTA rail by a small network of shuttle buses.

What could be useful is a street car line that connected the two college campuses, Atlantic Station and the GWC. Say GWC, thru Georgia Tech, thru Atlantic Station, over the 17th St bridge, by Arts Center MARTA station, down Peachtree (or Piedmont) downtown then back over to the GWC (via the MLK area). You’d have a line the would connect MARTA with useful destinations in the city and prove to be more useful for tourists and college students.

Atlanta also needs a much better way of connecting all the tourist sites in the area with downtown/midtown/Buckhead hotels. MARTA’s attempt at a “tourist loop” bus was just terrible. Short city buses running on 30 minute headways with ads for an exterminating company’s angry rat logo pasted on them didn’t work out very well (wonder why???)

The biggest tourist draw in Atlanta is Stone Mountain Park. The only way there from downtown is to drive. Other attractions that are not easy or impossible to get to on transit: Six Flags, Atlanta History Museum, Fernbank Museum, Zoo/Cyclorama/Grant Park, Turner Field, Kennesaw Mountain NHP.

I think trolley lines in Atlanta are a great idea. But this one is a lousy place to start.

The money would have been better spent on more MARTA, preferably heavy-rail. If we could do it in the 60’s and 70’s why not now?

$72M doesn’t buy much heavy rail transit. A couple of miles extension, perhaps. Besides, MARTA already has a 1/2 penny sales tax devoted to their capital needs.

What is actionable from that fact? That Altantans should move to Spain? That subways should be built in Korea and moved to Atlanta? That Atlanta should secede and become part of Spain so a subway can be built at Spanish costs? Things cost what they cost here because of the laws that “we the people” ask for when we vote for our representative government. e.g. “buy American” transit vehicles, prevailing (union) wages on construction, and the political and environmental due process for such projects.

No, they don’t. They have vigorous environmental review processes in the EU and Japan (I’m less sure about Korea). They pay high wages, with much lusher benefits than Americans get; they do not have right-to-work laws. And the waste is all in infrastructure, not vehicles; with a few exceptions like BART, American cities do not overpay for trains.

The difference is about more technical issues that can be resolved fairly easily, if people care to: reductions in staffing levels, contracting reform, in-house planning in addition to or instead of outsourcing to private consultants, high-profile lawsuits against contractors who overcharge. These aren’t weird or foreign things; New York does all except possibly the first when it buys rolling stock, and as a result pays less for trains than most peer cities.

So what you’re saying is….

outsourcing is driving UP costs?

That the private-sector’s profit motive isn’t producing efficiencies in design and construction services which the patronage-seeking soshulist public sektor can only dream of?

Who woulda thunk? :)

Yes, I’m saying that. A lot of businesses agree: my understanding is that during cutbacks, the outsourcing contracts are the first to go.

But there’s a difference between outsourcing and offshoring. You can outsource a function you did in-house to a company located on another continent, or across the road. It has nothing to do with offshoring. In fact, New York’s subway train manufacturing, which I keep holding as a good model, involves offshoring (parts of the R160 were made in Brazil) but not outsourcing, as the design is done in-house.

Profits aren’t the problem. Rolling stock vendors make profits. So do construction contractors, even in countries that build subways for one tenth the cost of the US. The problem is that American governments procurement rules encourage incompetent or dishonest contractors.

The streetcar plan is a terrible idea…not because of its type of transit, but because of its proposed location. Intown Atlanta certainly needs a streetcar to go east/west, but not immediately parrallel to the MARTA rail lines. The better location would be further north in the Midtown area. Run a streetcar east/west there that could connect West Midtown, Georgia Tech, Midtown, Piedmont Park, and Virginia Highlands. This line could bisect the Red & Gold MARTA rail lines and tap into the Midtown or Arts Center stations.

The proposed streetcar line along Peachtree Street is even worse though. Running the line directly on Peachtree would cause traffic chaos. A better routing along that corridor would be to run parrallel tracks that run north along West Peachtree and south along Juniper streets. There is excess road capacity there, and a streetcar would be able to help calm traffic along those roads, while also providing a great economic development return.

With all that said, I agree that the Beltline would be a much better program to advance if you have to choose between it and either of these two streetcar lines.

Like the midtown E-W idea. Make it a loop crossing the connector at 17th St. and North. Also, why not bend it around from Va. Highlands and keep going up to Emory…

Exactly! I completely agree that it’s ridiculous to add a streetcar unless it’s going to serve some useful purpose not already being served by MARTA. Currently, there is no easy way to get from the Emory area to midtown/downtown. The closest MARTA station is Decatur at approx. 2-3 miles, but then getting to either downtown or midtown requires a change of trains. And unless you walk or bike to the Decatur station, the only option is taking a bus, then 2 different trains – for a distance of just 6-7 miles. No one has time for that – it’s no wonder MARTA is only used by many as a last resort.

It’s really pathetic when local shuttles serve a need much more effectively than public transit. There’s a shuttle that goes between GA Tech and Emory during the school year, however that requires finding another solution for summer. A Cliff shuttle goes between Emory hospital on Clifton Rd. to Emory Midtown on Peachtree, and from there, downtown or the GA Tech campus are each approx. 1-2 miles. While neither shuttle is the best option or appropriate for someone who cannot also walk or bike a few miles, it’s still faster than MARTA and FREE!!!

Perhaps I’m not up on recent developments, but I thought there were serious conflicts with Amtrak on parts of the Beltline. Does anyone know where that stands? If those issues are unresolved, that could be the kind of issue that would delay federal funding (especially in light of this administrations HSR and HrSR push).

You’re right, Steve, but the conflict is with CSX, not Amtrak. The Beltline does not have all the right of ways needed to be a viable transit project as this time. All they’re doing at the moment is building trails and parks.

One of the best things Atlanta can do is improve the streets for pedestrians so they can walk to the existing transit. The typical 1/4 mile ped shed doesnt work in Atlanta because in that radius it requires crossing a 50 mph 8-laner with no crosswalks and walking out of your way to an overpass over a wide interstate.

These Atlanta streetcars are all terrible as they barely serve any new territory, Sweet Auburn and MLK is a short walk (and by Atlanta standards not bad) and Peachtree is well served by MARTA.

I agree Midtown/Arts Center is the place for a crosstown streetcar. It is the only place in Atlanta with any decent urbanism.

I think a street car going on 10th street, or North Ave./Ponce de Leon, would be the most sensible decision. I don’t understand the need for a new line N/S in the center of the city, and only a few blocks from MARTA.

Being “different” doesn’t make the Beltline the best prospect for TIGER II. It’s a $2.2bn project that’s not ready to go.

Also, Atlanta is desperately in need of some pretty ho-hum, “like so many other cities” transportation options: reliable, frequent, accessible buses and trains that get people from their homes to work, school, shopping, and back again.

Also, while the Beltline is a nice idea and all, it just doesn’t go anywhere.

This doesn’t seem wise. The streetcar runs along the same corridor as the MARTA — and for those who have visited ATL the stations aren’t that far apart. A circulator bus could accomplish whatever a streetcar could in this case. (e.g. connecting the peachtree corridor to Atlantic station.)

Building the trails on the beltline could really get the project going. Indianapolis got funding for their trail system and this would’ve been equally as deserving.

Perhaps the city went after streetcar funding thinking that is what TIGER is funding the most? But in my last check, that isn’t necessarilby the case.

Given the local money split, it seems like the city went after a streetcar because that’s where they could help with the local matching funds, and one centered on Peachtree Ctr. because that’s where the help was available.

The Beltline is not a transportation project, because the supposed transportation goes from nowhere to nowhere. Few of the “connected centers” even exist. But that’s great, because there’s nothing that planners and architects in such places as Atlanta love more than “blank slates” and theoretical residents. Go for it, Beltline!

No need to pay any attention to the actual, thoroughly not “different” MARTA system that actual people use every day. It’s not nearly “different” enough.

Also, the Beltline is a stupid idea altogether. Invest in MARTA and existing communities until they don’t desperately need it anymore.

Transportation is the future, as was the vision Hartsfield saw in our airport. Thank God! Whats the future for Atlanta? We need rail service between downtown and major cities outside the metro area like Jacksonville, Birmingham, Savannah, Chattanooga, Charlotte. Just think being able to travel by air to Hartsfield and short fast train to travel from Atlanta to other major cities. Inside Atlanta we need transit that goes where we already go. Marta is a joke, big nasty empty buses clogging up streets. Downsize to smaller buses to larger buses to rail. Clean up the stations. Go ride BART in SF and see how nice and pleasant their trains are.

So to help with traffic your planning to add a rail line in traffic lanes? Not smart. That’s what killed the previous suburban rail lines. The only reason the MARTA rail is hanging on is that it doesn’t have level crossings with current modes of transportation. Subway system costs too much so elevated light rail is a better solution. Anything else will be an additional load to an over burden system already in place. Look at Philadelphia – everyday accidents with trolley bus or light rail. Drivers in lanes of travel for the trolley preventing movement. Might as well just rent a bus and pocket the rest.

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