Ups and downs of Atlanta Streetcar project due to reintroducing transit

By Maria Saporta

It’s been more than a half century since streetcars ran on Atlanta’s roads.

But that’s about to change — despite numerous obstacles that have revealed that we’re a bit rusty in the streetcar development business.

Construction work is progressing on the Atlanta Streetcar — and it currently appears that service will begin in the spring or early summer of 2014.

That is about six to seven months after the original schedule. But the project has experienced unforeseen delays — primarily over the relocation of underground utilities and the surprises of what exists underneath out streets. More than 15 utilities have been impacted.

That has delayed the ability to lay down tracks — but that should change in the next couple of months.

The delays also have led to a budget gap — over what money exists to build the project and what the contractor — URS — expects it will cost to finish up the work.

Several months ago, that gap was thought to be more than $10 million, but after ongoing negotiations the various entities have narrowed that gap to less than $5 million.

“We are still at the table,” said Tom Weyandt, senior transportation policy advisor for the City of Atlanta. “We have exchanged further proposals as recently as last week, and we have put out a plan for moving forward. We are waiting for a response from them, and I have got every expectation that they will be the contractor for this job. We are within striking distance of reaching a final number with URS.”

Atlanta Streetcar logo

Atlanta Streetcar logo

The Atlanta Streetcar is a public-private partnership between the City, MARTA and the private Central Atlanta Progress/Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. The $92.7 million project won a $47.7 million federal TIGER II grant, which gave the project life.

“URS continues to make good progress in finalizing the Atlanta Streetcar contract,” said Ed Hrinewski, the firm’s project manager. “While Atlanta’s streets have a number of historical buildings with underground utility systems that have added some complexities to this project, we have made significant progress in identifying the challenges and developing the solutions necessary to move forward with the construction of the streetcar.”

To make it as “shovel-ready” as possible, the joint venture team had to enter into a “design-build” contract, meaning that the project was being designed at the same time that construction work was underway.

“You have to deal with a lot of unknowns,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress. “That’s what has made it difficult — deciding who should take the risk – the contractor or the sponsors.”

The project’s $52 million construction budget does include a financial buffer for “contingencies” to help cover cost overruns, and the current gap is within that buffer. But the project team does not want to use up all of its contingency budget in case other issues come up.

Another dynamic that has been at play is that when the project was first put out for bid, the region had not yet held the transportation sales tax referendum, which included a number of new transit projects — primarily light rail and streetcar.

Several construction companies entered competitive bids to build the streetcar, perhaps anticipating that if the referendum passed, they would be in a better position to build the other transit projects. But that incentive went away when the referendum failed.

Here is a breakdown of the project’s total budget:

In addition to the TIGER grant, the City of Atlanta has put in $15.6 million into the project; the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District has put in $6 million for an “initial net project total” of $69.3 million.

The remaining budget for the project includes $9 million that the City of Atlanta has allocated to buy the streetcars; $8 million from the Department of Watershed Management to move water and sewer pipes; $5.1 million in a Livable Centers Initiative grant for transit and pedestrian enhancements; and a $1.25 million LCI grant to make Luckie Street two ways.

Map shows route of the Atlanta Streetcar

Map shows route of the Atlanta Streetcar

Another significant shift in the project is over who will operate the streetcar.

Initially, MARTA was expected to be the operator. But now that’s not a certainty. Now the plan is to go to market in about six months with a request for proposal (RFP) to have various entities bid on operating the streetcar.

“We are still talking to MARTA about the nature and the form of operations, and we are in the process of drafting a RFP to get the most efficient and cost effective operator to run this system,” Weyandt said. “It does not necessarily exclude MARTA. They will be the contracting authority.”

What has become clear throughout this process is that Atlanta entities have had to rebuild their expertise in building new transit — especially streetcars that use the existing roadways.

And although the referendum did not pass, Weyandt said the city is continuing to pursue other options to build new transit..

“We are actively looking at what the next phases will be and what the next corridor will be,” Weyandt said. “We actually can control our own fate here. We own virtually all the right of way. We also are also looking at alternative funding. through public-private partnerships.”

Case in point, the City currently is looking to hire a director of streetcars; and it is applying to become a grantee of the Federal Transit Administration that would allow the City to apply directly for federal grants.

Robinson also is optimistic about the impact that the Atlanta Streetcar will have on downtown, saying that already several new developments are being planned along the 2.62-mile streetcar route.

The building of the Atlanta Streetcar is the dawn of a new era for transit — one that can begin to transform the way we get around in our community. The Atlanta Streetcar has exposed the difficulties that come with having to re-enter the transit business after having been out of the game for decades.

But leaders behind the project believe it will be well worth the pain.

“We have some tough negotiations to conclude,” Weyandt said. “We are going to have to pay some close attention every step of the way, and we are going to have to be resourceful. But I’m confident it’s going to open and it’s going to knock every body’s socks off.”

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23 comments
White Whiner
White Whiner

The streetcar route currently under construction is the base of a larger future streetcar network that will get closer to the sites you mentioned. A Luckie Street extension, likely the first extension, could go all the way to Tech and pass by the World of Coke and the Aquarium. Also, there a number of empty parcels along the currently under construction line -- these are being zoned for large hotels. Streetcars not only serve existing destinations, but future destinations as well. What we should be focusing on is building a short-term bus network that links to the streetcar and MARTA stations that will serve as the base for future streetcar expansions.

MARTA Supporter
MARTA Supporter

The streetcar is a great idea and a great way to redevelop downtown into a more attractive place for tourist and residents. Everything that will come to downtown will not be just geared for out of towners. Ultimately it will connect to the Beltline and create a great intown network of streetcars and light rail. Hopefully the burbs will be on and allow heavy rail and commuter rail to expand and be created to bring more people into the city. And I hearing how the streetcar won't serve certain attractions which is not the case. Just because it doesn't stop infront of the door of each place doesn't mean it isn't served. The attactions listed are all withing a 1/4 mile buffer, which for the average person is just a 5 minute walk.

White Whiner
White Whiner

 @Burroughston Broch  and @The Last Democrat in Georgia You two rarely have anything good to say about anything. Kind of like the two old white guys in the Muppet movies "ha, harrumph, grumble." Major transportation initiatives ARE ALWAYS prone to this type of challenge and delay - the fact that this is design build makes it even more likely that unforeseen issues will arise. I'd like to see the two of you devote your significant free time to defending a change instead of merely defending the status quo.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

{{"We also are also looking at alternative funding. through public-private partnerships.”}}

 

...You mean the source of alternative funding that they should have looked at first and should have been looking at all along instead of attempting to push that poorly thought-out and horribly-conceived T-SPLOST off on what they thought would be an unsuspecting public.

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

The white elephant has broken the restrictions of budget and schedule, and now even MARTA is stepping back from it.

How is it to integrate as part of a regional transportation scheme if it's not part of MARTA?

Don't be surprised at additional bad news.

 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

Nobody said the streetcar was a bad idea, it's just that routing the streetcar through the tourist and convention districts where ridership is likely to be the highest should have been the absolute first priority.

 

It makes no sense to build a streetcar and not connect 1,000-room hotels (some of the largest hotels on the planet) in the busy hotel district with the busiest tourist attractions in the state in the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca Cola, Philips Arena, and the CNN Center, not to mention the future sites of the College Football Hall of Fame and the Civil Rights Museum.

 

The whole idea should be to run the streetcar on the route where it will carry the most riders and be the most popular so that it will remain viable for continued operation and increase in viability for future expansion.  

 

There's no way that there should be a two-block walk to CNN Center and the World of Coca-Cola and a three-block-or-more walk to the Georgia Aquarium, Philips Arena, the Georgia World Congress Center and the future sites of the College Football Hall of Fame and the Civil Rights Museum from a streetcar line if that streetcar line is to remain viable over the long run.

 

Directly connecting the Hotel District with the up-and-coming tourist/convention district emerging around Centennial Olympic Park would have ensured that the streetcar was popular from day one and remained viable moving forward over the long run instead of routing the streetcar to the east and hoping that it remains viable through an Sweet Auburn-Edgewood District that has much farther to go in its comeback efforts and to a King Center that has increasingly struggled in recent years.

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

 @White Whiner  

I am the eternal optimist - expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised when things don't turn out as bad as they could have.

I don't believe in change for the sake of change, so don't expect me to blow sunshine in your face.

If you disagree with the substance of what I post, then reply with substance.

This streetcar is, in country parlance, a pig in a poke - ill-conceived, ill-planned, ill-implemented, and yet another drain on the public purse.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @White Whiner 

My issue is not with the delays of the Downtown Streetcar currently being constructed which, as Ms. Saporta so eloquently covered in a previous post, has serious flaws in its routing due to the fact that it does not run directly past or even within a couple-of-blocks of the sites of very-popular tourist attractions like the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola and future sites of the College Football Hall of Fame and Civil Rights Museum. 

 

My issue is with the overwhelming tendency of the powers-that-be in this town, region and state to shirk their responsibilities of effectively funding and managing our transportation network often due to simple indifference or just outright ignorance of the importance of basic transportation infrastructure. 

 

Nobody is defending the status quo here because, if anything, it is the status quo of willful and intentional incompetent mismanagement and vast underfunding of transportation infrastructure (MARTA, GDOT, Georgia Legislature, etc) that has this region mired in the mobility mess and continued economic difficulty that it is in.

 

As for "defending a change", your comment infers that your idea of "defending a change" means defending the highly-flawed T-SPLOST that was defeated in a landslide in a consensus of an ultra-diverse coalition of disenchanted and disillusioned Metro Atlanta residents this past summer.

 

If your idea of "change" was that lazily-conceived T-SPLOST that was nothing more than a poorly-disguised attempt by local and state government to fleece the taxpaying citizens of Metro Atlanta, then you really are no better than the status-quo that you falsely and disingenously attack others as being apart of as the T-SPLOST was really nothing more than a continuation and expansion of the incompetent and corrupt status quo that has run this state into the ground and turned it into a complete laughingstock from a transportation management and ethical standpoint. 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @Burroughston Broch

 The City of Atlanta isn't pursuing streetcars as a way to improve public transportation.  The City of Atlanta is pursuing streetcars as an economic development strategy to attempt to spur greater private investment along the selected corridors where they're chosen for the streetcars to run. 

 

The City doesn't care one iota about the convenience of driving for automobile traffic on the surface streets where the streetcars will run, particularly on Peachtree between Five Points and Brookhaven where a lane of traffic in each direction will be taken for the streetcar. 

 

The attitude within Atlanta city government, just as it is within most municipal governments of very-large cities at the urban core of major metro regions all around the country, is to attempt to deter SOV (Single Occupant Vehicle) driving as much as possible so that people traveling into the urban core will be motivated to take transit whether they really want to, or not.

 

For the City of Atlanta it is all about deterring SOV use as much as possible while spurring much greater private investment in selected corridors and motivating greater transit use at the expense of SOV drivers who may increasingly find that the City of Atlanta is not going to be the only place where traditional single-occupant vehicle use is going to be made increasingly difficult by the government (see Metro Atlanta freeways where congestion pricing will be increasingly in use as a means of deterring SOV driving).

arctk2011tj
arctk2011tj

 @Burroughston Broch I work right near here and traffic is NEVER a problem on Peachtree street. In fact traffic is always a problem on the interstates, highways, and cross-town connecting streets like 10th, North, 14th streets. The streetcar isn't there to serve as the "optimal solution" but is it a treatment for the problem? YES. It's better than doing nothing with the current system. The stigmas of riding the bus are far opposite from the streetcar. It might sound "crazy", but there is a HUGE psychological component to transportation. Streetcars provide for a fixed route system that ensures landowners and developers as well as communities that there is a sense of permanency. Bus lines are far too flexible that budget cuts adjust routes and provide no incentive for development along a bus route. Streetcar routes have proven in MANY other cities to have had an economic impact in redevelopment if other contributing factors are in play (such as the network of Beltline transit that will be added to the system.) 

 

Also the "Total Cost of Ownership" claim being higher for streetcars over buses has been debunked by many other sources. 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @Burroughston Broch  @White Whiner

 What is even the point of constructing a supposedly tourist-oriented streetcar if it stops blocks short of serving the biggest tourist attractions in town (Philips Arena, CNN Center, the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, the future sites of the College Football Hall of Fame and the Civil Rights Museum)?

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @TylerBlazer  

 Also, while traffic may not necessarily be as much of a problem on the sections of Peachtree that run through Downtown and Midtown, traffic can be a huge problem on the sections of Peachtree above the Spring Street and West Peachtree Street junctions north of Midtown that run through South Buckhead.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @TylerBlazer  

 Excellent points.  Though, I will mention that rail transit does have higher startup and initial costs than buses, but costs are lower and ridership is higher over the long run on rail transit lines.

 

Also, it cannot be emphasized enough that (if a rail transit line is properly-placed) transit costs can be cut greatly through the utilization of user fees (distance-based fare structures), private investment and Tax Increment Financing (property tax revenues from new development that pops along transit lines).

 

The Peachtree Streetcar is a rail transit line that would fit the criteria of a transit line that would be able to sustain itself on its own without extremely politically hard-to-come-by extensive public tax subsidies (controversial regional sales taxes, increasingly severely-limited federal funding, etc) because of the extremely high-density and high-visibility area that it would serve.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @TylerBlazer

 As I stated above to Mr. Broch up above, the whole idea with the implementation of the streetcars is not necessarily just to improve transit connections as much as it is to spur even greater amounts of private investment along the corridors that have been selected for streetcar service while encouraging and motivating greater transit use.

 

Just like with the plans that were being talked about a few years ago before the economic downturn, the intention of the City of Atlanta is not to just merely spur increased investment on a street which is already rich in investment.  The intention of the City is to turn Peachtree into one of the most-expensive streets on the planet that is on par with the Michigan Avenues (Chicago) and Broadways and Fifth Avenues of the world.

 

Also, taking riders away from the transit lines that are now known as MARTA is not a worry for the City, because just as I stated above in a previous reply post to Mr. Broch, there are much-larger plans in the works to dramatically increase transit use in the Metro Atlanta region over the long-term through the eventual imposition of congestion pricing on all lanes of Atlanta Freeways by the Feds (especially on the I-285 Perimeter and beyond).  The Feds will likely activate these comprehensive congestion pricing plans if the State of Georgia has not made any efforts to expand the freeway system roughly before 2030 at the absolute latest and probably earlier.

arctk2011tj
arctk2011tj

 @Burroughston Broch The Sweet Auburn neighborhood is a designated historic district as well....tied to the King Center. So it's not just about one destination.

arctk2011tj
arctk2011tj

 @The Last Democrat in Georgia I think priorities should be connections to Beltline and making that transit a reality as well as implementing the Eastside Trail transit connections from Lindbergh to Five Points as well as cross-town connections to connect West Midtown/WestSide to Midtown and MARTA's backbone of heavy rail. 

 

I think much of the Peachtree Streetcar route would be great as a marquee streetcar project but there is already so much development along this artery that it would be redundant with the current MARTA Gold and Red lines. They won't want to take away ridership from MARTA's heavy rail though I still foresee that as a future phase with some great potential. It's just that at this moment it won't have as much of a financial,capital impact on areas that just need some better transit connections.

 

There's already a huge push for a line to FINALLY connect Atlantic Station to MARTA and loop over to West Midtown and serve the Northside corridor areas currently being studied by multiple entities.

Burroughston Broch
Burroughston Broch

 @TylerBlazer  

The Federal funding came because the real destination is the King Center. The idea is to lure tourists from Centennial Olympic Park (which has no attendance problems) to the King Center (which has had low attendance problems for years).

 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @TylerBlazer

 Future extensions and expansions of east-west alignments are great, but the best alignment that would put it all together would be the north-south Peachtree Streetcar between Downtown and Buckhead.

 

The Peachtree Streetcar, if managed correctly, will be the marquee streetcar route in Atlanta one of the most marquee streetcar projects when it comes online, though I don't think it is quite time yet as there still quite a few funding and operating details to be ironed out.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @TylerBlazer

 {{"You didn't really address any alignments concerning the larger hotels. And I think they intentionally didn't run by those because of the nature of the project is to serve the communities as well."}}

 

Well, I don't necessarily have a problem with the complete alignment of the streetcar and I especially love the fact that the streetcar runs through the heart of the under-utilized and underachieving, but vintage and historic Fairlie-Popular District.

 

Also, the current route of the streetcar, while not running directly through the heart of the Hotel District, runs into the south end of the Hotel District, broaching the western-edge of the Westin-Peachtree Plaza super-hotel at the corner of Carnegie Way and Spring Street and runs past the Ellis Hotel and turns the corner from Baker onto Peachtree in front of the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta.

 

Though I would have likely elected to attempt to utilize private funding and investment in addition to federal funding to bring the heart of the Hotel District onto the route in a first phase of construction and operation and extend the streetcar east out Auburn and Edgewood Avenues on a second-phase, to ensure that the revenues from the ridership and visibility of the Convention and Tourism District are brought into play on the route. 

 

I don't expect the path of the streetcar to be perfect in a place that is as imperfect as Downtown Atlanta (in that many of the blocks in the Hotel District have high-rises that were designed with no street-level shops or even windows making the area look excessively utilitarian with no hint of street-life or ground-level activity).  But I do expect that the path with the highest-possible ridership would be utilized so as to make the streetcar viable from the jump, keep the streetcar viable moving forward and increase demand for streetcar service in the future.

 

arctk2011tj
arctk2011tj

 @The Last Democrat in Georgia  @TylerBlazer Future route suggestions are hinged upon the design of the MMPT- which is one of the main reasons why the streetcar doesn't already loop around the park area like you noted. It also has a LOT to do with the location/alignment of the stadium as well(hopefully the southern site option). Some validate a northern site choice to spur a reason for transit, but let's be honest the West Side has to grow a LOT more as another node along this route before they will realize that transit infrastructure is validated.

 

You didn't really address any alignments concerning the larger hotels. And I think they intentionally didn't run by those because of the nature of the project is to serve the communities as well. The scope/budget didn't allow for that large of an extension to the first phase of the project and it would have had more political ramifications for being hotel/tourist oriented rather than making it easier for Atlantans to get around as well.

 

Much of the Federal funding that is supporting this project hinges on the fact that it is connecting a historic neighborhood that's been cut off from downtown for decades. There is a lot more economic gain/incentives through the redevelopment of these areas than there are with the areas around the hotels. 

 

Also- for future alignments, the Edgewood/Auburn alignment makes it fairly reasonable to extend toward the Beltline and up the Eastisde Trail corridor- connecting Downtown to the Atlanta Beltline/Ponce City Market, Inman Park, Piedmont Park, O4W, VA Highlands neighborhoods.

 

Major East-West connectors such as 10th and/or North Avenue are being considered for extensions of the streetcar/Beltline transit network to connect these routes and neighborhoods.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

 @TylerBlazer    

 You make some excellent points and there is nothing wrong with encouraging people to walk around Downtown.

 

But connecting your biggest destinations and largest tourist attractions with your largest and most significant hotels, along with the smaller boutique hotels that you mention, should be a no-brainer so the route can have it's best shot at not only being and remaining viable, but also being popular and successful from the very start so that there are political and social demands for continued expansion of the service.

 

With that said, I actually think that the intent is good in wanting to spur investment along a route of historical significance.

 

Though the east side of the route on Auburn and Edgewood Avenues should have been included in the project that was scheduled as a second-phase to be completed after a first-phase that went down (south on) Centennial Olympic Park Drive past CNN Center and Philips Arena, to Andrew Young International Boulevard up and back around directly past the likely future site of the retractable roof Falcons/GWCC stadium, the East Entrance of the Georgia Dome, the MAIN ENTRANCE of the Georgia World Congress Center (the fourth-largest convention center in the U.S.), through the Omni Hotel complex over to and up Marietta Street directly past the offices of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the Embassy Suites Hotel and the future site of the College Football Hall of Fame up to and across Baker Street along the north end of Centennial Olympic Park past the front entrances of the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola and the likely future site of the Civil Rights Museum and back down Centennial Olympic Park Drive along the eastern edge of Centennial Olympic Park to the current routing east on Andrew Young International Boulevard.

 

Not running that streetcar on a route that connects the Hotel District with the major attractions through the heart of the Convention and Tourist District will make that streetcar miss out on a heckuva lot of operating revenue and popularity early-on, popularity that can be used as political capital to expand the network of streetcars throughout the other most viable parts of the city.

 

 

arctk2011tj
arctk2011tj

 @The Last Democrat in Georgia  @Burroughston Broch  @White Whiner 

 

The streetcar stop at Centennial Olympic Park would be an average of a 5-7 minute walk to ALL of those attractions. That IS a couple of blocks. Do you ever walk down around Centennial Olympic Park? People are already walking a couple blocks between all of these destinations despite having to drive there. 

 

As far as stops near the hotels, there are well over a dozen hotels that are within a couple blocks of a stop. As for the Hilton, Marriott Marquis, and Hyatt Regency hotels most of those guests are in for conventions and conferences and aren't going to be as stable for ridership guests who will be staying in the smaller more affordable limited-service and boutique hotels that do lie along the route Those 1000-room hotels are rarely ever booked at or near capacity and won't have as much impact on the day-to-day ridership. 

 

As far as economic potential this route has far more chance of combining the downtown business crowd, GSU students, and hotel guests across downtown to Centennial Olympic Park to the Sweet Auburn areas - which has already proven to bring in new businesses/projects along Edgewood/Auburn Avenues. I'm excited to be able to go to the Edgewood/Auburn areas for lunch as of now it's not a feasible walk during lunchtime even to the Sweet Auburn Curb market from the Peachtree Center MARTA station.

 

The route may not be perfect, but it serves as a backbone for future expansions that can and will cover more direct access to other hotels/destinations and other parts of the city. What's to say that a route down Marietta street won't be a part of the area's connection to transit and have that direct access to these destinations? Part of the projects' goals is to get people to walk around as well. This isn't some doorstep to doorstep shuttle service for hotel guests to CNN center, World of Coca-Cola, etc. 

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  1. […] recent article in Maria Saporta’s Saporta Report blog provides an update on the progress of the project. […]

  2. […] map handy. Installation of the system has been delayed by an unexpected number of utilities–more than 15 by some counts–that need to be altered to allow for the track-laying process. This means that some of […]