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.
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.
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.
“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)