Streetcar boom

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Today, we hear from a major Atlanta Streetcar sponsor, who’s feeling good about the capital investment the project is bringing downtown — even before the vehicle does its test runs. An executive from Siemens, the company building the streetcars, writes how rail is reinventing U.S. city centers. We also reprise comments from critics who have weighed in on what they say is the streetcars’ ineffective mobility and outlandish expense. Note: There are three columns today.

Commenting is open.

Downtown growth sparked by streetcar

By A.J. Robinson

As the last of the Atlanta Streetcar rail is laid, the project has already attracted significant interest and investment to the corridor. Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District have been leveraging the streetcar by encouraging redevelopment along its route. As a co-funder, the Downtown District expects the project to do much more than just improve transportation mobility and access; our desire is for it to be an incredible economic generator that will transform our neighborhood.

Five years ago, when streetcar planning was in high gear, we were experiencing one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. Now, what is happening in our community is remarkable. In tandem with the streetcar build, several other key projects and initiatives are nearing completion. From world-class attractions to major corporate relocations, the city center is gearing up for an exciting and vital future.

Since the 2010 streetcar funding announcement, $370 million in capital investment in 26 projects has been completed within a five-minute walk of the route. Another 26 projects worth $375 million are on track to be completed in 2014. The pipeline of projects grows every day, from the restoration of the Atlanta Daily World building and the opening of 11 new restaurants to more than 2,000 new or renovated residential units and new office space in the Flatiron building for entrepreneurial infrastructure.

There are a number of efforts underway to assist existing businesses and attract new business and investment to the corridor. The efforts include tax incentives, beautification projects and a new retail program. Here are a few:

Opportunity Zone — In March 2013, Georgia’s Department of Community Affairs approved Invest Atlanta’s application to designate the Edgewood and Auburn district as an Opportunity Zone providing tax incentives for businesses to locate, expand and create new jobs in the area.

Facade Improvement Program — Invest Atlanta’s program has earmarked up to $2 million of Westside TAD tax increments and up to $3 million of Eastside TAD tax increments to provide technical assistance and cash grants to property and business owners to rehabilitate commercial facades.

Sweet Auburn Works — Sweet Auburn community stakeholders have established a commercial revitalization organization that will integrate the streetcar transportation enhancement project into its strategic plans for preservation-based economic development.

Auburn Avenue History & Culture Project — With funding from the Georgia Department of Transportation, a “walking tour” environment will be created. A sign system will improve the pedestrian experience and create a unique character along this segment of the streetcar corridor, as well as a notable improvement to the I-75/85 underpass. Installation is expected to begin in early 2015.

We are well on our way to leverage streetcar investment in many new and exciting ways — and the vehicles have not even taken their first test run.

A.J. Robinson is president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District.

Rail drives city center rebuildings

By Ken Cornelius

The city of Atlanta is at the heart of the ninth largest metro region, with more than 5 million residents in the 10-county area. The Atlanta Regional Commission projects this number will grow to more than 8 million by 2040. Atlanta knows it needs to better prepare for the continued influx of urban dwellers and it is now doing the single most important thing it can do to help address this issue: re-investing in rail to ensure a vibrant public transportation system for the city center.

The Atlanta streetcar is a critical piece of the city’s transportation puzzle. It will breathe new life into the heart of the city.

Rail has long been known to be a strong economic driver. As we’ve seen in other cities, the installation of rail tracks spurs economic development. In Portland, streetcars have helped bring development of some 140 real estate projects worth $3.5 billion, leading to an approximately 50 percent increase in land values. Charlotte has seen a $1.6 billion economic impact along its Lynx Blue Line since announcing its light rail project in 2003. Minneapolis’ new Green Line has seen more than $1.2 billion in development occurring along the Central Corridor LRT line even before its trains have begun to carry passengers, scheduled to begin later this year.

Public transportation is experiencing a resurgence. The American Public Transportation Authority last week released figures showing public transportation now at its highest rates in more than 50 years. We think it’s more than economics at play; people want to stay connected (to email, texts and social media) at all times, even during their commutes. And people are demanding more reliable, cleaner transportation options.

Many of today’s younger professionals want to live and work in vibrant city centers. More cities are reclaiming their centers by encouraging more transportation and development of areas that have lain dormant. Cities are working to strengthen their cores and revive a sense of community in downtown areas again.

Thanks to the new Atlanta streetcars, more Atlantans will have access to cleaner, more economical and convenient transportation alternatives. The streetcar will enhance connectivity between MARTA rail lines and bring together the eastern and western districts of the downtown area that have been separated by the interstate.

The new streetcar line is expected to generate investment opportunities on 80-plus acres of underutilized land and in 30 vacant buildings within a few blocks of the route. Residents, employees, students and visitors in these areas will experience a better quality of life, with direct connections to shops and restaurants, bike lanes, walking trails and convenient public transit options.

Atlanta, you are not just getting streetcars. Look more closely: This is a new, permanent addition to your transportation infrastructure and a serious, long-term commitment to the future of the city center of Atlanta. These newly built steel rails and structures are built to last, and will be a tangible reminder of Atlanta’s long-term investment in itself.

Ken Cornelius is the president of Siemens’ Cities Center of Competence. Siemens is building the Atlanta streetcars at its Sacramento, Calif., manufacturing facility, with drives for the streetcars being built in Alpharetta.

Costly, slow, inconvenient

“Watching the evolving justification for the Atlanta Streetcar 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 naive 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 website proclaims. The city is romanticizing the past.

If streetcars made sense, they 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 mph and without exclusive rights of way. Each streetcar 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 line, expected to open in May. Utilities are still tallying the costs of massive infrastructure relocation and negotiating who will pay for that. Construction has inconvenienced retailers, motorists and bus passengers, whose bus stops were moved. Schedule delays and cost overruns continue; the project’s cost, which started out at about $69 million, is expected to top $100 million.” — Benita Dodd, vice president, Georgia Public Policy Foundation (AJC, Jan. 28)

“All kinds of cities are building streetcars because the [federal] money is there, and if you don’t do it, someone else will.” — Randal O’Toole, senior fellow with the Washington-based, libertarian-leaning Cato Institute (AJC, Feb. 2, 2012)

“In terms of shuttling people from one neighborhood to another, in terms of where the jobs are in the big picture, I don’t think that’ll get us to where we need to get to while MARTA’s going broke.” — Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center, Clark Atlanta University (AJC, Nov. 7, 2010)

“For the amount they are spending, they could really improve the bus network, which helps all Atlantans out.” — Baruch Feigenbaum, policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a conservative think tank (AJC Dec. 16, 2013)

10 comments Add your comment

GaDawg

March 21st, 2014
10:17 pm

Gerald , my mistake, I should know better than to ever try to make a common sense point with a liberal idiot.

Gerald

March 21st, 2014
4:29 pm

GaDawg:

OK. Rush Limbaugh moved to Florida in 2011. Where did he live the previous 20 years? NEW YORK CITY. Second, as stated earlier, blaming the modern Atlanta government for the Underground issue is simply lying. Underground has existed in some form since the 1920s. Atlanta has only made some (inexpensive mind you!) attempts since the late 1980s to revitalize it, with the latest attempt being leasing it to prospectors who hoped that the state would give them permission to build a casino there. The city got tired of waiting on the state and bought the lease back from the prospectors so they could sell it to developers, who will likely just nuke the place and build townhomes, condos, shops and such. (Incidentally, doing so is only possible because that whole area has a bunch of development projects going on. Atlanta – by this I mean the city – is in the middle of a real estate boom, which the Beltline is playing a huge part of. Who gets credit for that, by the way? Governor Deal? George W. Bush? Ronald Reagan?) They could have kept waiting, because there were some proposals to allow Georgia lottery related gambling down there (proposed in the last session, wasn’t proposed in this session because it is an election year, but it will be brought up again, as turning the Turner Field area into a horse racing/lottery betting area has been proposed) but the Reed administration decided that finding a developer for the property would maximize their bond rating.

As far as the “low information voter not thinking about how the money is going to be paid back” … well how else are they supposed to raise the money to pay for the infrastructure? Do you have any ideas? Of course not. All you know is that you hate cities, you hate people who run cities, and you especially hate people who live in them. So you are going to criticize everything that they do, every decision that they make, every leader as they elect, as corrupt, incompetent, foolish, liberal big government destined to fail. And you sit and wait for it to go bad and it doesn’t. Why not? Because cities rarely fail. Why? Because at least half the population in this country wants to live in a city or at least needs to in order to work there. The only cities that fail are those that have a combination of decades of terrible leadership AND reliance on a single industry that falls flat on its face. Atlanta has neither. Atlanta has always elected moderate, pro-business, reasonably competent mayors. Even Bill Campbell was much better than what generally gets elected in Detroit and Saint Louis, and was better than the mayors that were getting elected in Washington D.C. in the 1980s and 1990s.

And Atlanta has a diverse economy: transportation, technology, health care, banking, insurance, entertainment, you name it. They’re not like Birmingham or Pittsburgh who went south with the steel industry (though Pittsburgh retooled and rebounded) or the rust belt with all their auto plants and heavy manufacturing. (As a matter of fact, manufacturing pretty much left the Atlanta area in the 80s and 90s, with the last big plant in Doraville closing down and it hasn’t even been noticed. No headlines about “Atlanta loses its manufacturing sector, thousands out of work” because Atlanta was already shifting to a high tech economy when the manufacturing sector was collapsing.)

Sorry, but Atlanta isn’t like your red state suburb. No city is. Cities need to build infrastructure to attract people who live in them. Not to adopt Reaganomics in order to get the people who hate them to criticize them a little less. And as far as Dr. Rust goes, his background is in nuclear engineering. If he wants to pontificate on the cost overruns for the Savannah nuclear power plant that tax payers AND rate payers are going to have to cover that is going to DWARF the streetcar (but hey, since that is being built by the private sector, and it isn’t being built in an “urban” area with a mayor elected by the “urban” demographic that makes it OK, right?) then he is free to do so. But the Beltline was created by a Georgia Tech Ph.D. in transportation and urban planning. Meaning someone who supports and promotes urban development, not someone who sits around rooting for urban areas to implode.

The truth is that you and your ilk do not have a single positive suggestion for how Atlanta or any other urban area can grow or attract jobs. Tax cuts? Hipsters who live in urban areas don’t care about tax cuts. They want to live where they can bike from their condos to their jobs, and bars that play techno fusion music to hang out in on the weekend. Cut crime? Atlanta has done that. This administration has increased the police force to a record size, ramped up patrols and presence, and now the crime rate is lower than it was before Maynard Jackson was elected. Have any of you suburbanites taken notice? Nope. But the hipsters have, which is why downtown and plenty of other areas around the city is gentrifying, and there is a construction boom going on with private developers (not the government but private developers) building tons of apartments, condos, townhomes) lofts etc. for the upscale folks that are moving not to Cobb, Cherokee or Hall but THE CITY.

But you can’t wrap your mind around that because you have convinced yourself that everyone who doesn’t adhere to your political beliefs is a welfare moocher. When in reality the folks who are buying homes and signing advance leases on condos being constructed all over Atlanta right now probably earn 4 times your salary, which means that to them, you are in Romney’s 47%.

So as much as you talk about “low information voters”, it is you who don’t have a clue about anything beyond your little suburb.

GaDawg

March 21st, 2014
7:35 am

Gerald, I thought you first said Limbaugh lived in NYC, now he ” splits ” time and Florida is his second home? You just make it up as you go right? NYC has huge income taxes, Limbaugh lives in Florida which has NO income taxes. As for the City doing another bond issue, sure when you have a city population of low information voters like you, they will vote for anything without ever wondering how the future generations will pay for it, just like the Underground bonds that are still being paid off. I suggest you read James Rust comment below, he understands the real world of spending public money without accountability

Dr. James H. Rust

March 21st, 2014
6:09 am

I recall a few years ago MARTA created a bus route duplicating the present streetcar route. They cancelled the route after a year or so due to a lack of passengers. I am willing to guess that streetcar line will not generate enough revenue to pay salaries for its operators. It will take 8 operators to run the system for a year. At $100,000 per year expenses per operator(pensions, insurance, taxes, etc.), it would take $800,000 in operating expenses or $2200 per day. At $2.50 a head, they need 900 riders per day just to pay salaries. Nothing about maintenance, insurance, or power costs. Naturally capital costs are always ignored when considering public transit systems. This line will be an economic disaster.

Another factor I have not heard mentioned about streetcars is they have a continuous power line along the whole length of the track. These power lines are maybe 15 feet off the ground and require poles every 100 feet or less. The power lines are going to cause safety problems. They may interfere with fighting fires and prevent fire trucks using their long extension ladders.

The 22-mile Beltline will have two tracks with streetcars going in opposite directions. The admitted cost is $2.4 billion which means actual costs will probably exceed $4 billion. We can’t afford wasting money like this. Demand that operating data is collected with the 2.7 mile streetcar line before any thought of spending money on the Beltline.

I just returned from a two-week trip to Fort Lauderdale, Fl. They have a trolley system in which buses look like trolleys and run on rubber tires. I would estimate these buses cost a couple hundred thousand dollars. The AJC published numbers for our trolley which I interpreted to be $4.5 million per car.

I am getting so discouraged about how money and opportunity is being wasted in this country. Billions go to crony capitalism to support boondoggles like trolleys, sports teams, etc. We can’t get potholes fixed on the streets that tear our cars up. It is the poor who suffer the most from this transfer of wealth to the rich from those less fortunate.

James H. Rust, Professor of nuclear engineering

Gerald

March 20th, 2014
5:44 pm

GaDawg:

Limbaugh splits time between Florida and NYC. Florida is his “second home.” Second, Atlanta is going to do a bond issue to address the infrastructure backlog. It will kick off next year. Seriously, folks like you who hate the fact that cities exist need to at the very least acknowledge the fact that without the cities there would be no suburbs. If anything, you should root for cities to be vibrant and healthy so that “those people” that you despise so much won’t follow you out to the suburbs. When Atlanta had real issues with crime and services in the 1980s and 1990s, that was when “those people” started moving into Cobb, Gwinnett, Clayton, Henry etc. You should root for investment to make Atlanta vibrant and livable (instead of demanding austerity for it just because you don’t like its residents or politics) so that those folks will move back intown and leave the suburbs safe for you and your kind of folks.

Sound like a deal? Look, cutting taxes and fixing potholes matters to people who don’t want to live in cities like you. No matter how low Atlanta taxes get and no matter how great they get at doing the mundane stuff, you will never live downtown because you will never feel comfortable living around the people who live downtown. Correct? So why even bother running a city to please people who will never live in it or support it and despise its very existence?

Instead, Atlanta should respectfully ignore the proudly OTP crowd and work on getting to move from Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago etc. to another city to live and work. Not try to get people who hated living in those cities. Those are the folks who move out with your people in the suburbs. Instead, people who LIKE living in cities and want to move to a DIFFERENT to go to school, change careers or what have you. People who actually like living in the city – and there are about 150 million such people in this country whether you like it or not – aren’t going to live in Hall, Cherokee or Forsyth. So why not do what is necessary to attract them, the jobs that they will create and their tax dollars to Atlanta?

Do you have a single argument against it? Other than being wedded to the ideological idea that an urban area cannot possibly succeed (despite the fact that there are DOZENS of successful large cities in this country that our economy vitally needs … see how far this country lasts without Wall Street in NYC or all the Fortune 500 companies in Los Angeles for instance) there isn’t one.

GaDawg

March 20th, 2014
9:19 am

Gerald, FYI, Rush Limbaugh has lived in South Florida for years, so much for your knowledge and with 800 million dollars in admittied infrastructure backlog by Atlanta, don’t you thing they already have plenty of projects for public money rather than throwing it away on a Street Car ?

Benita Dodd

March 19th, 2014
4:11 pm

Patrick Busko, I “wrote” the third piece you “referenced.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and streetcars will never address congestion in the city. Not today, not next month, not next year … not EVER.

Gerald

March 18th, 2014
12:52 pm

GaDawg:

You do realize that A) Underground Atlanta was built decades ago, long before Atlanta was even a major city and moreover B) that MARTA is now running a profit again and C) Atlanta is now again attracting employers and residents who actually want transit?

GaDawg, this may come as a shock to you, but not everybody is a Reagan Republican who aspires to the suburban lifestyle. There is a significant population in this country of people who want to live in urban areas. Of course, suburban conservatives insist in believing that the only people who want to live in cities are minorities, union employees, folks on public assistance, and people with alternative lifestyles or radical political views. That is not reality. Never has been. Example: Rush Limbaugh? He lives in New York City.

Atlanta is trying to compete with CITIES like NYC, Boston, Charlotte, Dallas, San Diego, Portland etc. for the jobs and employers who WANT to locate in urban areas. Not for folks who live in Forsyth or Cherokee. Why? Because folks who live in Forsyth and Cherokee aren’t going to live in Atlanta no matter what Atlanta does to try to attract them. And you attract folks and employers who want to live in CITIES by building CITY INFRASTRUCTURE: public transportation, parks and so forth. Not with Reaganomics.

What attracts jobs in suburban and rural areas doesn’t work for cities. And if you try to govern a city like its a suburb, it won’t be a city for very long.

GaDawg

March 18th, 2014
10:03 am

The ” Process ” has started, the pro streetcar guys like Robinson and Cornellus are spreading the story that the Streetcar Project is the greatest thing to hit Atlanta since sliced bread, no matter that its grossly over budget and has yet to earn a penny. If you listen to these guys, you would think that it will solve all the City’s ills like crime, poverty, traffic congestion and anything else you can think of. Just like most Government conceived programs, it will cost more, do less and be an eternal drain on operating costs until the day comes that it is abandoned just like Underground. When that day comes, you won’t be able to find a single one of these prognosticators, they will have moved on to the next ” feel good ” project funded with public money.

Patrick Busko

March 17th, 2014
6:23 pm

Not sure who “wrote” the 3rd piece you ran, but they have clearly never been to portland or charlotte to see today’s version of rail transit in operation. They also dont understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day and we will not solve our transportation problems in a day…or with one project. This is a small first piece of a much larger rail network across Atlanta that will help to address congestion in the City.