By Maria Saporta
Less than a mile separates the end of the Atlanta Streetcar tracks on Edgewood Avenue and the Atlanta BeltLine.
The City of Atlanta is applying for a $29.3 million grant in federal TIGER to connect these two magnets of economic activity by extending the Atlanta Streetcar to the Irwin Street entrance of the Atlanta BeltLine.
The TIGER 7 grant application outlines a project that would add 1.8 miles of track (round trip) to the existing Atlanta Streetcar at a total cost of $65.4 million.
That cost would include the acquisition of two new modern streetcars as well as three new stations as well as an addition traction power substation.
“We think we have a very competitive application,” said Michael Geisler, the City of Atlanta’s chief operating officer, said in a telephone interview Thursday.
According to a blog post by U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, the department has received more than 950 pre-applications for TIGER 7 funds from all 50 states requesting nearly $14.5 billion – 29 times the amount that has been set aside for the program – $500 million.
Geisler said he believes Atlanta’s application will be competitive because the city is able to quantify the impact that the existing streetcar has had.
Since the streetcar corridor was announced in 2010, there has be $560 million in new investment along the route, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said at the annual meeting of Central Atlanta Progress in March. He added that another $280 million in investment already was underway in 2015 – for a total investment of $840 million in five years.
“It is really about connectivity and transit in this area of the city,” Geisler said. “It is contributing to a quality lifestyle and it is providing a good form of transportation for people living in the city.”
The first phase of the Atlanta Streetcar is a 2.7 mile corridor that connects Centennial Olympic Park with the heart of downtown on Peachtree Street, Woodruff Park, Georgia State University and the King historic district.
Atlanta received a $47 million TIGER 2 grant – the largest one given in that round – for the first phase of the streetcar. The total project ended up costing $98 million- including four streetcars and a maintenance facility.
The Atlanta Streetcar began operating on Dec. 31 – fulfilling a pledge Mayor Reed had made that service would begin in 2014. The streetcar project experienced several delays largely because of unforeseen complications due to the relocation of utilities.
It has become a favorite target of critics who have called it a boondoggle and questioned its value in solving Atlanta’s transportation challenges.
Geisler laughed and said he has the scars to prove how the streetcar has become a whipping post.
But he also said it has generated a great deal of goodwill among the people who live in the area, among the merchants along the route and especially among the visitors who come to Atlanta and now are able to more easily experience several of the city’s top destinations.
Extending the existing line to the Atlanta BeltLine will only add to that “last mile” connectivity by bringing riders to other unfolding attractions, including the Krog Street Market, Geisler said.
The Atlanta Streetcar recently has been attracting 3,000 riders a day, Geisler said, another sign that it is being accepted by the public. The service is still free through the end of the year.
Geisler said now the city is working with MARTA and likely will adopt a mobile app to charge fares – providing a seamless experience for people using transit in the city.
It is for Atlantans to remember is that the existing streetcar is just the beginning of what could be a much larger system, Geisler said.
“We have a 50-mile vision,” he said, adding that the city is holding serious discussions to hire a new streetcar director in the near future.
Geisler also was quick to added that this was not a solo effort by the city but included the strong partnerships of Central Atlanta Progress with its Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, MARTA and the Atlanta BeltLine.
Although the Atlanta Streetcar has only been open 170 days, Geisler said it already has had a major symbolic impact on the city.
“What we have done is turn a divider – the Downtown Connector – and with the streetcar,” Geisler said, “it has become a uniter.”
A decision on the TIGER 7 grant awards is expected in mid October.