Atlanta leaders hope streetcar proposal will win in second round of U.S. TIGER grants

Maybe the second time will be the charm.

The City of Atlanta hopes the federal government will give its streetcar plan a green light during the second round of TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants.

City leaders are presenting their revised streetcar proposal to the Atlanta City Council this week and need the full council’s approval before July 16 when pre-applications are to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Atlanta and Georgia did not fare well during the first round of TIGER grants — when $1.5 billion were distributed to transportation projects across the nation. In the first round, the federal government was offering 100 percent of the funding.

This round is not quite as generous. Only $600 million will be allocated in this round, and all projects will require at least a 20 percent local match to secure 80 percent in federal funds.

But the City of Atlanta is not deterred.

In the current application, the city is proposing a 2.6 mile East-West loop that would have 13 stops between Centennial Olympic Park and the historic district along Edgewood and Auburn avenues, going as far as the King Center.

The total project cost $72.1 million, and the city plans to apply for $52 million in federal funding and provide $20 million in local funding, according to Luz Borrero, deputy chief operating officer for the City of Atlanta.

By comparison, in the first round of TIGER grants, the city applied for nearly $300 million for 9.2 miles — including the East-West loop as well as building out the first phase of a streetcar on Peachtree Street going up towards Brookwood Station.

“We learned from the first time around what the U.S. DOT wanted,” Borrero said, adding that federal officials wanted to projects to serve as many people as possible and that they wanted to see “local enthusiasm” for projects. “I was told: ‘We really want to see more skin in the game.’”

As part of this application, the city is proposing to invest $10 million in general obligation bonds and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District will provide the other $10 million.

The streetcar proposal has the strong backing of Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who has been promoting the project whenever he’s had meetings with federal officials.

This time the mayor also can point to the recent passage of a transportation bill in the Georgia legislature — a bill that will permit regions around the state to vote on a 1-cent sales tax in 2012.

The city’s application, however, doesn’t anticipate revenue from that tax or from the state for this round of TIGER grants.

It is estimated that the East-West loop will cost about $2.2 million a year to operate. The city is proposing to provide $1 million in annual operating funds would come from hotel-motel taxes and car-rental taxes. The remaining $1.2 million in operating funds would come from fares, and possible revenues from advertising, concessions as well as from tourist venues.

Because this phase of the streetcar project is only located in downtown Atlanta, the Midtown Alliance and the Buckhead community are not currently involved. But it is anticipated they would join in when the city is able to develop/expand the streetcar up and down Peachtree Street.

Ultimately, the idea would be to have a streetcar running North-South from Fort McPherson to Brookhaven as well as the East-West loop.

If the Atlanta City Council approves the project and the city submits its pre-application proposal on July 16, then the formal application will be due August 23. The federal government is expected to decide by the end of the year which communities will receive the TIGER II grants.

“I think it’s going to be as competitive as the previous round,” Borrero said. “I don’t think it’s going to be any less difficult to compete for these funds.”

Hundreds of communities applied for TIGER grants in the first round. Georgia ended up with nothing. The same was true with high speed rail grant dollars. Although several neighboring states won substantial grants, Georgia received only a few planning dollars.

Unfortunately, Georgia is at a political disadvantage in getting federal funds. All of the top state leaders are Republican, including the governor, the lieutenant governor, speaker of the house and the two U.S. senators. That means state leaders have limited access to key members of President Barack Obama’s administration.

Interestingly enough, these TIGER grants will be announced after the November election when there is an even chance that Georgia voters will elect a Democratic governor.

Of course, it’s too early to know what impact the November elections would have on Atlanta’s streetcar grant.

At least Atlanta has not given up on the idea of developing streetcars as a way to round out its transit network — complementing its MARTA rail and bus system.

“To me this project is a generational project,” Borrero said. “This will create a complete transformation in downtown and the overall Edgewood corridor.”

Perhaps Atlanta’s fortunes will improve during this round of grants. If the U.S. DOT endorses the streetcar project, then Georgia will finally be able to re-enter the transit game.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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