Atlanta Streetcar holds great promise — but only if trains run often and link key places

By Maria Saporta

Walking along the streets of downtown Atlanta, painted multi-colored lines are the first sign that the Atlanta Streetcar is on its way.

Those are the markings of all the utilities that lay underneath the surface of downtown streets — telephone, cable, fiber, water, sewer, gas and electrical lines. There are even abandoned streetcar tracks and the vestiges of pipes that were once a downtown steam heating system that served downtown buildings.

Many of those utilities will have to be relocated to make way of the 2.7-mile streetcar line that will connect Centennial Olympic Park with Ebenezer Baptist Church along an east-west axis that will travel mostly along International Boulevard, Luckie Street, Auburn and Edgewood avenues.

On Saturday, Nov. 5, the Citizens for Progressive Transit organized a walking tour of the streetcar’s alignment — giving interested citizens an inside look of how the new rail transit system could transform our downtown area.

The start of the walking tour is at Peachtree and Ellis streets, the one place where the streetcar will connect with MARTA (Photos by Maria Saporta)

The tour guide was Paul Grether, a MARTA professional who is the manager of streetcar development. The Atlanta Streetcar became a reality for downtown when the federal government approved a $47 million grant for what was originally envisioned to be a $69 million project in October, 2010.

Although the City of Atlanta applied for the grant, it was done in concert with Central Atlanta Progress and MARTA — a wonderful model of how collaboration can work as we seek to implement new transit projects in the coming years.

The streetcar will go along Andrew Young International Boulevard until it reaches the end of the line at Centennial Olympic Park. A few of these trees will have to be cut down for the streetcar's layover stop.

Partly because of increased cost to move utilities and to design streetscapes to accommodate the new streetcar, now the project is estimated to cost a total $83 million, according to Jennifer Ball, CAP’s vice president of planning and economic development.

The different entities have figured out how to pay for the increased costs, such as a $5.5 million grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Livable Communities Coalition and funding from the City of Atlanta’s Department of Public Works for the relocation of water and sewer lines.

During the walking tour, Grether’s depiction of the project revealed all the complexities that come with resurrecting a downtown with streetcars after a gap of more than five decades since the city was filled with streetcars.

The streetcar will travel eastward on Luckie Street in front of the Tabernacle, and Luckie Street will become two-way.

The return of the streetcar is one of the most welcomed developments for downtown Atlanta. Based on the experience of a host of other U.S. cities, streetcars have sparked the rebirth of central areas by creating a pedestrian-oriented environment that encourages the reinvestment in downtowns.

That said, the plans for the Atlanta streetcar have two major shortcomings — two flaws that can and should be corrected for the project to reach its full potential.

The only place where the streetcars will intersect will be at Woodruff Park at Auburn Avenue and Peachtree Street. Paul Grether shows the route on a map.

Point one — frequency of service.

Atlanta’s streetcar team bought four actual rail cars, but only two cars are expected to be in service on a regular basis. One of the cars is a spare in case of a breakdown. And the fourth car will be available for special events.

As a result of the scarcity of cars, the streetcars will only run every 15 minutes. If Atlanta leaders really want streetcars to become a viable transportation option for our community, they need to do much better than that.

One of the real historic gems along the streetcar route. Downtown leaders hope the streetcar will encourage new investment downtown.

A downtown streetcar should be running every five minutes — assuring folks that this is a service that will get them where they need to go within a reasonable amount of time. To go from one end of the line to the other will take 10 minutes on the streetcar.

Many of the stops are close enough to walk. So why would one want to stand around for 15 minutes waiting for a streetcar when they could probably walk most of the way in the same amount of time? Folks could say that the streetcar would be a good alternative if the weather is bad. But again, who would want to stand around for 15 minutes in bad weather?

Another gem along the route — the Royal Peacock.

The decision to have 15 minute headways reminds me of the stupidity to have eight to 10 minute headways on MARTA trains at peak times. We spend billions of dollars to build the backbone of a regional transit system, and then we skimp on the operating side. MARTA was designed to have trains every 90 seconds. For riders to be able to rely on the system as a transportation option, the minimum time between trains should be five or six minutes at most.

Yes, it does cost more money to run rail cars more frequently, but that’s the whole point of building a system — to make it as attractive a transportation option as possible for the choice rider.

The streetcar's maintenance facility will be located underneath the Downtown Connector between Auburn and Edgewood.

If we really want students to jump on the streetcar to get to Georgia State University, or downtown workers to explore other parts of downtown during their lunch break, one can’t have them waiting 15 minutes on each end for a streetcar.

Point two — destinations.

Central Atlanta Progress has identified 80 acres of land and buildings along the route that currently are underused. Here is a stretch along Sweet Auburn.

As it is now designed, the streetcar will go as far as International Boulevard and Centennial Olympic Park Boulevard. That is nearly half a mile away from the key destinations of the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coke and most importantly, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.

When the project was being to sold to us, the idea was to connect the civil rights center with the King Center on Auburn Avenue. The other end stop is Auburn Avenue and Jackson, which would bring riders near the front door of one of Atlanta’s greatest treasures.

Another key destination along the route — the Sweet Auburn Curb Market on Edgewood.

But not connecting the King district with the high profile tourist attractions on the northern end of Centennial Olympic Park is another missed opportunity. Ideally, the streetcar would have continued west on International Boulevard, had a stop at Marietta to serve those going to the Georgia World Congress Center and then turned right on Baker Street and loop back around to Centennial Olympic Boulevard.

“When the system was being planned, we looked at a larger loop, but it wasn’t within our budget,” Grether said.

The historic Hurt building and Hurt Park will be another key stop serving Georgia State students.

The good news is that the streetcar team bought “off-the-shelf” railcars, and it could buy two or three new rail cars to get the frequency of service where it needs to be.

Also, if voter pass the regional sales tax referendum next year, part of the funding for the BeltLine transit service would go to extending the route of the streetcar.

A close up of the Hurt Building. Notice the small black hooks in the building. Those used to hang streetcar cables decades ago, and they might be used again.

Despite those two drawbacks, having a streetcar downtown will give people a taste one of the most exciting modes of urban transportation that exists today. It also will put a stake in the ground for long-term economic investment and revitalization — which can only be good for our downtown.

So I welcome the streetcar. I just wish it would go further and run more frequently so it would become a system we all could use.

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12 comments
UrbanTraveler
UrbanTraveler

Maria, this is a brilliant analysis and commentary. On any given convention day, there can be TENS OF THOUSANDS of visitors at the GWCC, along with the employees of the Dome, GWCC, hotels, and CNN Center. As the map of the streetcar route shows, http://a8.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-snc6/71722_446699916316_124566361316_5487762_7870755_n.jpg,

the loop stops about 1/4 of a mile short of the front door of all of these places. Is that the kind of connectivity the planners are proposing?

Successful projects get the maximum number of people from where they are to where they want to go in the least amount of time practical. The streetcar can be a powerful "complete the trip" option for MARTA riders (there is one connection at Peachtree Center) or a convenient option for Atlantans or visitors who want to make a trip within the downtown area they would not otherwise make on their lunch hour or break. Whether as a part of a larger visit downtown, or for visitors to have a car-free option to connect to all our city has to offer, easy and frequent connections to major attractions and centers of employment are key. The 1/4 mile gap from the GWCC to the corner of Andrew Young International and Centennial Park is a bridge too far for most. The planners have really missed the boat on this last roughly 1/2 mile of track.

The good news is that streetcars are easily expanded, and if that is the goal, the planners should make it clear from the onset that is their intention, as more money becomes available.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia like.author.displayName 1 Like

Maria, I agree with every last one of your points as the streetcar doesn't run frequently enough or far enough. But with Atlanta being Atlanta and Georgia being Georgia, of course the streetcar line doesn't quite completely connect all major tourist attractions and points of interest.

I mean, why would a downtown streetcar possibly ever need to run at a high-frequency and actually run to the front door of high-profile tourist attractions like the Georgia World Congress Center and the Georgia Aquarium?

Do you think that we are actually trying to attract riders to the line?

emory22
emory22

Maria, I completely agree with your comments on frequency, especially for the main MARTA rail lines. I remember when I started riding the North Line to work from Lenox Station in 1984, the frequency was 6 minutes; now it's 15 minutes, even during peak periods. This is a disgrace. I don't know of any other heavy rail system that has such poor service. I understand that MARTA has financial constraints, but this is the wrong way to economize. I think they should go to full automation, which would allow them to run shorter trains at shorter frequencies. As I recall, the train control system was designed to facilitate such a conversion.

Bruce Emory

Mason Hicks
Mason Hicks like.author.displayName 1 Like

@emory22 Bruce, While I would quickly defer to your experience in this field, I'm not sure that full automation of existing service is that easy. In Paris, they have been in the process of automating Metro Line 1 for several years. Granted, Line 1 is over a hundred years old... One of the most visible requirements is that they install platform gates at all platforms, similar to what exist with both of Atlanta's airport people mover systems. I can't really speak for train control systems...

Before I started working here, I had the opportunity to be the real transit geek, and I would watch the operation of Line 14, (originally called the Meteor). At peek periods, these trains would be running 90 second head-ways, (two the second...). I sure that I have never waited more than three minutes for a train on that line. And now with the implementation of the Grand Paris project, Line 14 is going to be extended from both ends, so that it connects Charles de Gaule Airport thru the central city, to Orly Airport, to the South. Additionally, a new fully automated Metro line will form a ring through the suburbs around Paris; all told, some 125 miles of new automated metro line...

(http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2011/05/27/paris-region-moves-ahead-with-125-miles-of-new-metro-lines/)

Maria, thanks for another great article...

Mason

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@Mason Hicks@emory22

And thank YOU, Mason, for reminding us just how totally inadequate and completely lacking (and poorly thought-out) our transportation network is here in Atlanta, especially when compared to Paris and their 90-second to three minute headways...Talk about being at the OPPOSITE end of the transit universe...While our roads are filling up with unfathomable amounts of traffic we're CUTTING back our bus and rail transit and the "geniuses" (not really) that "run" our "transportation network" (into the ground) don't seem to have a clue of what to do to actually make things BETTER (see the $16 BILLION that the state wants to spend on HOT lanes as their warped answer to what ails us).

brcrowe14
brcrowe14

Great article, Maria. I agree completely with you comments about frequency of service--both for the streetcar and MARTA. But am I right in assuming that a rider would be able to catch the streetcar at Peachtree Center Marta Station and ride to the King Center? That would be a great benefit.

writes_of_weigh
writes_of_weigh

Just curious.......if when Yonah had this "vision" for (re-)utilizing a near hundred year old "plan" to

link various rail facilities in the Atlanta area if he was aware of the "mini" loop utilized by various (rail)roads to allow officials to tour aspects of Atlanta's rail network(the mini loop occurring if one ventured east from the zero milepost to the junction with Decatur belt(Sou Rwy) - Armour jct. line then north to Armour jct. then west following the Atlantic steel lead(under Brookwood station) parallel to the NS Piedmont Division main toward Howell interlocking but springing southwest(potentially) over 75/85 on the Atlantic Steel bridge to the parking lot/deck of Atlantic station then linking that destination via GA Tech to

the old North Avenue (passenger)coach yard then southeast and completeing the "loop" at the newly "visioned" MMPT.....er Terminal/Union station(s)?

Again.....just curious? Could this possibly tie in to the trolley(streetcar) line and improve downtown/Midtown transit options?

Mason Hicks
Mason Hicks

w_of_w,

Are you referring to Yonah Freemark, of the Transport Politic (www.transportpolitic.com) ? If so could you link the post?

writes_of_weigh
writes_of_weigh

@Mason Hicks Oui......yes.....that Yonah....whose "vision" is unfolding at

(www.atlantabeltline.org) or something such. Ca va, monsieur.

JDubsATL
JDubsATL like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 2 Like

I don't see the "destination" problem as a huge issue, as most people would be more than happy to walk through the park to get to the World Congress Center, World of Coke, Aquarium, etc. Its a safe, pleasant, and quick walk with no cars, minimal bums, and plenty of trees. I almost think its better to keep the streetcar from running through the park, but hey, that's just my two cents.

The frequency issue, on the other hand, is big. As usual, everything comes down to funding, and Atlanta (and the U.S. in general, with a few exceptions) is not willing to spend the appropriate amounts of money to make the service outstanding, as opposed to just mediocre.

Great article. I'm excited about the project regardless of its issues. Frequency can be fixed pretty easily. Right now its key to get it designed and running.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

@JDubsATL

"As usual, everything comes down to funding, and Atlanta (and the U.S. in general, with a few exceptions) is not willing to spend the appropriate amounts of money to make the service outstanding, as opposed to just mediocre."

You hit the nail right on the head. Sadly, this sentence reflects how this city, region and state seems to approach infrastructure planning, which is HALFHEARTEDLY.

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