Control of Atlanta’s streetcars emerges in talks of $2.5 billion in transit funding

By David Pendered

The issue of who should control the Atlanta Streetcar – Atlanta or MARTA – emerged as a flash point Wednesday between some Atlanta city councilmembers and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration during a talk about the future of the streetcar amid a $2.5 billion proposal to expand transit in the city.

Atlanta Streetcar

Neighborhoods throughout the city have great hopes that more transit will improve their quality of life. Credit: David Pendered

The issue of control painted a bright line between Reed’s administration and Atlanta City councilmembers Kwanza Hall and Felicia Moore. The issue may include other councilmembers who didn’t comment at the council’s Transportation Committee.

MARTA’s CEO/GM, Keith Parker was left to walk a political tightrope between the two apparent camps:

  • “We will help in any way we can. If requested by the city to take on a more vigorous role and if that request is endorsed by the [Federal Transit Administration] and, by extension, [Georgia Department of Transportation], that is something we would entertain.”

Both Hall and Moore expressed support for MARTA to eventually assume operational command of the Atlanta Streetcar.

Kwanza Hall

Kwanza Hall

Reed’s administration has said since the beginning of the streetcar that the streetcar should remain a creature of the city, autonomous from MARTA. Atlanta officials worked hard for years for the city to be designated as a partner of the Federal Transit Administration.

This status enables the city to avoid going through MARTA to apply for and receive FTA grants, according to Parker.

Reed’s COO, Dan Gordon, maintained this historic position during the committee meeting Wednesday.

Gordon’s comments calling for independence from MARTA were reinforced by a request for proposals the city released June 10.

Atlanta is seeking to hire a company to maintain and operate the streetcar. The RFP doesn’t contemplate a vigorous participation by MARTA. The RFP specifies that: “MARTA acts as a non-voting, technical advisor to the [streetcar’s] Management Committee.”

Felicia Moore

Felecia Moore

Parker said that MARTA’s role is to provide oversight for the safety of transit movements.

Moore asked Gordon if MARTA should have a greater role in maintaining and operating the streetcar. After Moore concluded her comments, she indicated she did not expect Gordon to respond.

Transportation Committee Chairperson Yolanda Adrean wasn’t ready to move on. Adrean called on Gordon to respond and the two engaged regarding Moore’s question about MARTA’s involvement in operations:

  • Adrean: “I’d like to hear his [Gordon’s] feedback [on Moore’s question]. It that on the table?”
  • Gordon: “We’ll be glad to take that under advisement. Yes. We’ll look at it.”
  • Adrean: “Is it on the table?”
  • Gordon: “We understand there’s a request for it and we’ll be glad to talk further with MARTA and see how that works, compared to the RFP and the scenarios for the streetcar going forward. It’s an option.”
Advocates of the Atlanta BeltLine hope it wil invigorate an interest in refurbishing Atlanta's older neighborhoods. Credit: David Pendered

Advocates of the Atlanta BeltLine hope it wil invigorate an interest in refurbishing Atlanta’s older neighborhoods. Credit: David Pendered

This is how Hall characterized his outlook in comments at the start of a long discussion between committee members and representatives of Reed’s administration:

  • “MARTA is in the transportation business and I think we should ultimately be making a pathway for MARTA to own the streetcar and to operate the streetcar and to develop that capacity we’re taking about. And link it to the BeltLine and have one system with one great leadership team that’s really delivering the service we all deserve.
  • “This is a start, so I’m still a proponent of the streetcar. But I think when we’re talking about funding, ultimately it should come out of the MARTA bill and not ouf of groups like Central Atlanta Progress. They really help be an incubator. But they don’t do transportation. We should let the experts do it, make sure the funds are there, and send it in that direction.”

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

6 replies
  1. Chad Carlson says:

    For transportation to be successful in downtown Atlanta all these various forms’–e streetcar, the Beltline, buses, and trains need to be under one entity for connectivity and efficiency.Report

    Reply
  2. Richard Higgins says:

    Hot potato, this one. If MARTA takes it on and the streetcar continues to be an expensive boondoggle, then MARTA risks being blamed for the whole thing.Report

    Reply
  3. Burroughston Broch says:

    Meanwhile City taxpayers pay $400,000 per month (after deducting farebox collections) to operate the Streetcar. To date, City taxpayers have about $63 million invested in the Streetcar and the total increases about $5 million per year.
    The cost would be lower for City taxpayers to subsidize the King Center.Report

    Reply
  4. John Wolfinger says:

    Thank you to Kwanza Hall for bringing up what a lot of we citizens are also wondering about. As I see it the streetcar management seems to be coming from the Mayor’s office – folks who are not traditonally in the transit business.Report

    Reply
  5. Carl Holt says:

    I would like to see this be ran more similar to the Portland Streetcar, where the city Portland owns the streetcar, but contracts operations to TriMet.Report

    Reply

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