Atlanta’s Streetcar Investment Is Not Paying Off

The Atlanta streetcar, which cost $100 million to construct, is only drawing about 700 passengers per day. Photo: Lauren Holley/Flickr
The Atlanta streetcar, which cost $100 million to construct, is only drawing about 700 passengers per day. Photo: Lauren Holley/Flickr

Back in July 2012, passage of the T-SPLOST transportation tax seemed essential to the Atlanta region’s future, at least among certain members of the political and business elite. Georgia Governor Nathan Deal and Mayor Kasim Reed formed a bipartisan coalition in support of the $8.5 billion, 1-cent sales tax increase, and they attracted support from 200 companies. They argued that the region had to combat traffic and support growth by investing in a combination of highways and transit.

But the measure went down in flames, winning just 37 percent of the vote.

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It was sunk by opposition from the Senate Majority leader, who said it wouldn’t help congestion; the Sierra Club, which said it was too focused on roads; the Tea Party, whose members hated the tax increase; and a county chapter of the NAACP, which suggested the projects selected weren’t the right ones.

Lee Biola, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit, summed it up to me: “Roads people were put off on it being majority for transit, transit people were put off on it being about roads.”

In this installment of Getting Transit Right, we’ll look at what’s changed in the transit landscape since that vote — how advocates in one suburban county won a significant victory, and how the city of Atlanta made a misstep with its streetcar project. (You can catch up on our Atlanta transit coverage with parts one and two in the series.)

Contentious city versus suburban politics

At the heart of the T-SPLOST conflict was the intense city-versus-suburb political dynamic that has played out in the Atlanta region for decades. While residents of the city supported the tax, people living far from downtown rejected it by a huge margin.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that nothing had changed since 1971, when white suburban residents gripped by racial panic voted to prevent the MARTA transit system from serving their communities. While segregation remains a major problem for Atlanta, the political dynamics of transit in the region are shifting.

Part of the reason for that has been work by MARTA to improve its own reputation. “MARTA was the most beleaguered transit agency in the country,” said the agency’s general manager, Keith Parker. “We’ve been able to make some dramatic improvements, and people see that. All those things have made people change their perspective. I’ve heard the most favorable opinions from the highest levels.”

That includes Republicans, many of whom have historically been quite hostile to transit investment. Brian Gist of the Southern Environmental Law Center pointed out that the primary sponsor of a bill to support transit in Fulton County was a Republican whose district abuts the district of another Republican who was the bill’s primary opponent. “It’s becoming more complicated politically,” Gist said.

Progress in Clayton County

Though regional anti-transit politics are typically associated with white residents, even some largely African-American areas have resisted transit expansion. In Clayton County, south of the city, “it was the same thing as with white Republicans,” said Biola. “They didn’t want poor people coming into their county, and the county was majority Democratic and African-American.”

In the 2012 vote, Clayton residents sided against T-SPLOST, and county leaders actually shut off all transit service in 2010. But transit advocates didn’t give up. A coalition including Biola and the Partnership for Southern Equity’s Nathaniel Smith led a grassroots campaign of the equity and faith communities to challenge the anti-transit dynamic.

Smith says the Clayton campaign was different from the 2012 effort because it was “not led by the private sector.” The coalition, he added, was a departure from “the usual story of how things are done in the Atlanta region.”

Their work helped convince county commissioners to allow a 2014 referendum on increasing the sales tax by 1 percent to fund MARTA expansion into the area for the next 33 years. “We were down to the wire,” said Biola. “Churches, others with civil rights experience got out to support it.” That November, a massive majority of county voters signed on to the first MARTA expansion into the suburbs since it was founded in 1971. Bus service began in 2015.

But poor results from the Atlanta Streetcar

Unable to assemble new funding from the state to significantly improve the rapid transit system, the city of Atlanta chose to focus on a cheaper-to-implement streetcar line. The route opened in December 2014 after a year of delays and an almost $30 million cost increase, from $72 million to $98 million.

The hope was that the streetcar would attract 2,000 daily passengers, but it’s only moving about 700 riders a day as of the latest reporting. It has also faced considerable maintenance problems that have led state and federal officials to question its management.

The fact that the city runs the line, rather than an experienced transit agency like MARTA, probably doesn’t help. But there are fundamental flaws in the project that no maintenance or operational expertise is likely to overcome.

The streetcar travels only 1.3 miles, from downtown to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, so it’s only useful for a limited variety of trips. It stops too frequently — six times over the course of its very short route — slowing service. And because the trains operate in lanes shared with cars, they average less than 10 mph on a good day; often, they get stuck at signals and behind cars, leading to delays and a high degree of unreliability.

Everyone I spoke with for this series agreed the street car line is not a model for future investment. No one wants to spend millions of dollars on projects that don’t work.

When volunteers step up with small-scale interventions

In a development that’s simultaneously encouraging (as a reflection of civic engagement) and troubling (as a reflection of government priorities), volunteers and advocates have stepped up to make the transit riding experience more dignified. The MARTA Army works on “scalable” interventions for the transit system. Simon Berrebi, a doctoral student in transportation at Georgia Tech who leads the group, told me his goal is “empowering residents to improve their experience.”

The Army is doing that by engaging residents directly on achievable improvements. “We opened up bus stops in the region,” he told me, “allowing people to adopt a bus stop.” More than 350 stops have been enhanced using weather-resistant signage that people in nearby communities put up and maintain, providing riders with basic information about bus schedules.

Operation Clean Stop, another Army initiative, is a crowd-funding campaign designed to bring trash cans to bus stops in East Point, a city just south of Atlanta. The work has already raised $16,000 for this community, and the results are a bus system that simply is more comfortable for people to use.

Hopefully, the inspiring volunteer energy will also spur local governments and MARTA to take care of these essential services in the future.

Grading recent Atlanta transit investments

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A comparison of the 2012 Atlanta region transportation vote and the 2014 decision to expand MARTA into Clayton County suggests that a geographically focused transit- and equity-based coalition, rather than a regional grab bag of roads and transit, can better capture the imagination of the public and produce support for transit investment.

But in order for progress to sustain itself, the transit provided by that spending must be effective. Though MARTA has been steadily improving its reputation, the foibles of the Atlanta Streetcar have also marred the track record of recent transit investments.

What’s working

  • Hard work rebuilding MARTA’s reputation paying off with growing support for transit region-wide.
  • Coalitions around equitable transit access have yielded better results than corporate-led “all of the above” transportation funding campaigns.
  • Volunteer efforts to improve bus stops illustrate demand and enthusiasm for getting the fundamentals of the transit rider experience right.

What’s not working

  • Inability to coordinate regionally on transit investment.
  • Streetcar funding wasted on slow, unreliable service.
  • Public investment in basics like bus stop schedules is lacking.

Coming next

In 2016, Atlanta residents voted to tax themselves to pay for a package of transit and transportation projects. In the next two posts in the series, we’ll look at how this funding will be put to use.

  • Yonah – Not sure if the headline is yours, but it seems like click-bait given the content of the article, which seems mostly about MARTA and not the city streetcar.

  • war_on_hugs

    Yonah already covered Atlanta’s land-use issues in part 1, but I think it’s worth re-iterating in terms of the streetcar’s failure (so far). This Medium post shows just a few illustrative examples of empty lots all along the line. Beyond service and reliability problems, there are simply few walkable destinations near the streetcar’s stops.

    That’s bad news in the sense that Atlanta was either unwilling or unable to coordinate land-use strategies around the streetcar. The Medium poster mentions that much of the vacant land is owned by large orgs like George State that don’t seem inclined to sell or develop anytime soon.

    The good news, I suppose, is that the line still could be useful if they’re able to implement TOD going forward. Here in DC, the much-maligned and much-delayed H Street streetcar is similarly short in length and only useful in limited ways, but the silver lining of all of those delays is that a ton of TOD took place along the H Street Corridor well before the cars started running.

  • Robert Crew

    When my Mum visited from overseas, she rode the streetcar, and said it was clearly geared to locals, not tourists, as none of the announcements highlighted tourist destinations, and there was nothing to say what was around any stop.

  • And because the trains operate in lanes shared with cars, they average less than 10 mph on a good day; often, they get stuck at signals and behind cars, leading to delays and a high degree of unreliability.

    Signal. Preemption. Or better yet, just ban private vehicles from some of those street segments with photo enforcement. Problem solved.

  • Vinstar

    “The streetcar travels only 1.3 miles, from downtown to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, so it’s only useful for a limited variety of trips.”

    The Atlanta streetcar is little more than an expensive toy train. 1.3 miles is a joke. In a big metro area like Atlanta you’d probably need at least a hundred miles of track for it to be useful to people. The metro rail system in Los Angeles is over a hundred miles long and attracts 150,000 riders per day. Either build the system big enough to be useful or don’t build it at all.

  • jameshrust

    Streetcar replaced horses in the 19th century. They make no sense in the 21st century. Do like Ft. Lauderdale and label a bus TROLLEY.

  • disqus_1pvtRUVrlr

    A quick “drive” of the area on Google also shows the streetcar displaced bike access in an absolutely ridiculous, disjointed manner (presumably due to the crash hazard that tracks pose to cyclists). All of a sudden a “No Bike” sign will appear along the curb, after one has made the turn or crossed the intersection. Ostensibly one is to stop and turn back? Near Olympic park the direct route suddenly has a “no bikes” sign where the light rail line enters that street, a couple blocks from the park and it entails a four block detour for bicyclists, and requires riding on multi-lane urban arterials.

  • Mitchell Brownlow

    it’s quite ridiculous…. I choose to ride between the rails all the time, since the alternative route (where there is little to know active store-front activity) one block over is completely unappealing.

  • bolwerk

    Well, you gotta start with something, and it seems they are already planning an extension to a MARTA station. But I guess it’d be nice if they went into this with a master plan or something.

  • Has Atlanta finally snapped its final twig? I now live in Pittsburgh, which got rid of its streetcars years ago, They were a nuisance, a hazard, made for bad roads, etc. I miss those ugly things like hemorrhoids. Pittsburgh needs to try way harder to be hip, while the ATL really needs to back down on trying to be hip. It will come back to bite Atlanta in the future. Trust me. It just will. Randy McDaniels, TLC.

  • kclo3

    150000 riders on 100 track-miles isn’t exactly all that good either, certainly nothing close to Paris’ trams (900K people/65 mi). But pure track mileage isn’t a good metric to justify building an entire network. What is more important is that each line serve a niche but high-demand corridor that can serve areas where higher-capacity subways would be unwarranted; see here and here. For a city with subways this usually means a circumferential line connecting to subway stations with high existing bus ridership. Atlanta’s streetcar OTOH barely exits the immediate walkshed of the Blue Line from Dome to King Memorial station and doesn’t connect very well to the Orange Line; it’s little more than a slower redundant connector even if situated closer to the CBD.

  • They needed a citizen-led crowdfunding initiative just to get trash cans at the stops.

  • kimiF1

    Sooner or later the government will just fail at everything, and we’ll end up paying taxes AND doing all the work.

  • Benita Dodd

    On the bright side, it’s “only” dropped from 5.2 percent to 4.5 percent farebox recovery since I wrote about it at the end of December … http://www.georgiapolicy.org/2016/12/new-year-old-streetcar-named-disaster/

  • kimiF1

    Throwing $100,000,000 of taxpayer money away on a 6864′ street car line which only hauls 700 people / day isn’t exactly trivial.

  • Elizabeth Connor

    The streetcar didn’t work (is anyone surprised?), but that’s not what the article is about. Clickbait.

  • Elizabeth Connor

    Actually, no. I live in D.C. I can get around on Metro anywhere I want cheaply and safely — certainly more cheaply and safely than when I was spending my whole life on GA 400 or 285. Sure, the Safetrak program is making Metro inconvenient at times right now, but it’s crucial for the 40-year-old program.

  • kimiF1

    I was half joking, but since you brought it up. I was in DC last month and had to take Uber since and entire Metro line was closed out of service because they have failed to maintain the system. Kinda proves my point.

  • Elizabeth Connor

    Yep, Safetrak is a pain. But you … and I and everyone who uses Metro … are inconvenienced because they ARE maintaining the system. And like Atlanta, DC only gets the system people are willing to pay for.

  • kimiF1

    No, we are inconvenienced because the government failed to maintain the system for decades. https://www.washingtonian.com/2015/12/09/why-does-metro-suck-dangerous-accidents-escalator-outages/

  • l Frazer

    I think the title of the article should be ‘Atlanta’s Streetcar Investment is Not Paying Off -YET’. Development along the Atlanta Beltine’s WestSide & EastSide trails are BOOMING. There is a light rail component to the Beltline that will tie into the streetcar and Marta. The changing Atlanta demographics demands alternate transportation. For example, We have a 20 year old that didn’t want a car (I actually had to force one upon him!). We are going to buy the car for you, why don’t you want one?, we asked him one day. “People my age don’t want to drive anymore, we prefer to take Uber and Marta everywhere, or ride bikes”. Needless to say, he only uses his car to come visit us or go to work on coldrainy days.

  • Elizabeth Connor

    That too.

  • Walter Crunch

    I actually saw the Atlanta sleep car. What a waste of space and money.

  • jamesjamonsta

    If you include the subway, its more like 380k a day or more in LA for rail transit.

  • Eric Douglas

    It could be better explained what the failure of T-SPLOST has to do with the streetcar since the streetcar isn’t run by MARTA, as mentioned, and since it predates the tax.

  • Eric Douglas

    Agree based on the number of anti-streetcar comments and compared to the number of comments on articles. Most of the article isn’t even about it.

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