Moderated by Tom Sabulis
This spring, streetcars are expected to roll through Atlanta once again, offering residents and visitors another transportation option for getting around downtown. Today, the Atlanta Streetcar’s executive director writes about how these electric vehicles will add connectivity for many folks along the line from Centennial Olympic Park to the King Center. Our second columnist says the streetcar will be impractical — too restricted, too slow, too inconvenient.
Commenting is open.
By Tim Borchers
Streetcars are an integral part of the story of Atlanta. The first streetcar line, which connected Peachtree Street with what is now Spelman College, opened in 1871. During the early 20th century, Atlanta’s population tripled as streetcars helped expand the city limits to nearby suburbs, creating a vibrant and easily accessible metropolis.
Today, Atlanta is the center of the fastest-growing region in the United States and home to the world’s busiest passenger airport. We host leading research universities and are among the top three U.S. cities with the most Fortune 500 headquarters. But “easily accessible” is not a term many would use to describe us these days.
Fortunately, the city is moving forward with an impressive regional transportation plan that emphasizes reasonable alternative choices. This year, we’ll see one part of it begin service: the Atlanta Streetcar.
Streetcars are more than the “next new thing” in urban transportation. With a growing number of people — both younger workers and empty nesters — choosing to move into or near large cities, streetcars make sense because they can easily connect passengers with a wide array of activities and jobs in urban corridors. They also allow these same city dwellers to have more transportation choices, and give those looking for a more sustainable lifestyle the option of being car-free.
For those going farther afield or coming into the city from the suburbs, streetcars provide inner-city connectivity from larger regional transit systems, helping reduce congestion downtown. A single streetcar can transport as many people as 177 automobiles — and, being electric, they do it more efficiently and with fewer emissions.
While the Atlanta Streetcar will be a new mode of transportation in the downtown area, it’s not a new idea. The streetcar is part of the city’s long-term Connect Atlanta plan, which was developed to accommodate growth while maintaining the quality of life desired by an increasingly diverse population. The Atlanta Streetcar is a critical piece of Atlanta’s transit future, and that will include expansion of the streetcar in a citywide network that will link to major employment centers in Midtown, Georgia Tech and the Atlanta University Center.
With phase one of the Atlanta Streetcar nearing completion, the look and feel of downtown Atlanta is already changing. The access the streetcar will provide to millions of visitors heading to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and Centennial Olympic Park will further enhance our reputation as an exciting place to live, learn, work, shop and play.
Atlanta is growing, and growing quickly. To accommodate this growth, particularly in the downtown area, it is crucial that we diversify our transit options. Our city grew with the streetcar before; with the new Atlanta Streetcar, it will grow more, and more sustainably, again.
Tim Borchers is executive director of Atlanta Streetcar.
By Benita Dodd
Watching the evolving justification for the Atlanta Streetcar project’s benefits is like watching a shell game. It’s anybody’s guess what reason will turn up next: mobility, congestion relief, economic development, environmental benefits or tourism. Only the naïve would place a bet.
Back when it applied for a $47 million federal grant for the streetcar, the city predicted that “automobile trips will be diverted to the safer streetcar mode, which will thereby reduce accidents and increase pedestrian safety because more travelers will be using the streetcar instead of traveling by automobile.” (The application also admitted that more than 57 percent of the people within a quarter-mile of the streetcar route don’t have a vehicle.)
The streetcar could possibly turn out to be a tourist attraction, but it is impractical as a mode of transportation. It’s disingenuous for proponents to describe the project as “a critical piece of Atlanta’s transit puzzle … [with] a ripple effect that can influence developments elsewhere across the region,” as the project Web site proclaims. The city is romanticizing the past.
If they made sense, streetcars would be thriving and locally funded. There’s a reason these boondoggles are relegated to history and local governments reach for federal (taxpayer) handouts. They’re slow and expensive, with infrequent trips and frequent stops. Inconvenient too.
A fixed guideway handicaps the lane. In Atlanta, where an existing lane is being converted, the vehicles are projected to run 15 minutes apart at an average speed of 10 miles per hour and without exclusive right of way. It will make 12 stops along the 2.7 mile route (1.3 miles one way). Not only is this slow, it also slows other vehicles in the busy lane – and stop-and-go traffic increases auto emissions.
The city optimistically projects 2,600 weekday riders for the streetcar line, which is expected to open in May. Utilities are still tallying the costs of massive infrastructure relocation and negotiating who’ll pay for that. Construction has inconvenienced retailers, motorists and bus passengers, whose bus stops were moved. Schedule delays and cost overruns continue; the project cost, which started out at about $69 million, is expected to top $100 million.
The streetcar web site says, “We are all in this together, and the Atlanta Streetcar is a critical first step in an exciting new age for transportation across our region.”
Voters understand the need to fund congestion relief and mobility; taxpayers and commuters want to improve transportation. But they expect sound transportation policy. Streetcars are neither smart nor visionary. Atlanta is committing transportation funds to a transit relic; bus service (which has struggled in the corridor) – even shuttle service – would have improved mobility and provided flexibility at a far lower cost.
Once you’ve committed to a federally funded project it’s hard to admit failure. Other governments worth their salt will give serious consideration to the economics and effectiveness of the streetcar project and tell Atlanta, “Thanks, but no thanks. You’re on your own.”
Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.