Atlanta Streetcar, Atlanta Beltline aren’t competitors; they complement each other

Atlanta Beltline or Atlanta Streetcar?

Unfortunately, some Atlantans believe it’s an either/or choice.

But if both projects compete against each other, Atlanta loses.

What many people fail to realize is that both projects are complementary and interdependent. Any progress that can be made with either project should be welcomed by advocates of the both.

The latest tension between both projects surfaced last month when TIGER II (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) federal grant applications were being prepared for both projects.

The Atlanta Streetcar’s application was for $52 million with a $20 million local match — $10 million from the City of Atlanta and $10 million from the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. The proposal called for a 2.6 mile East-West loop connecting Centennial Olympic Park and the King Center along Edgewood and Auburn avenues.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Beltline Inc. was preparing a $13.2 million application for the TIGER II grants to build trails along parts of what will be a 33-mile network of trails along a ring that will encircle the central city.

But Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who chairs the ABI board, urged Beltline officials to withdraw their application.

In an interview last week, Reed explained why he didn’t want to seek these federal dollars for the Beltline project.

“I thought we were diluting our ability to get a significant funding request by having multiple grant requests,” Reed said. By having two City of Atlanta applications — one for $52 million and another for $13.2 million — then federal officials could have “checked the box” next to Atlanta’s name by funding the less ambitious application.

Instead, Reed thought that if Atlanta submitted its streetcar application, the City would have a decent chance in getting the full $52 million.

This is the second time that the City has applied for TIGER dollars for the streetcar. The first time, the City’s application was for nearly $300 million with no local match. That proposal called for the East-West loop as well as the streetcar line connecting downtown with Midtown.

But Atlanta was completely shut out of the first round of TIGER dollars (in fact, not one of the dozens of applications from Georgia communities was successful).

Since that experience, Reed and his team did some debriefing with federal officials to find out why Atlanta’s streetcar application was not funded.

“We really focused on the feedback that we got in the debriefing,” Reed said. “I think we are in a much better position than we were before. Going for a $300 million grant with no local match — that was a criticism of the City of Atlanta’s application. The fact that we are putting up a $20 million match for a $52 million application makes us feel reasonably good.”

Reed also said he’s been laying the foundation to enhance the City’s relationship with federal officials in Washington, D.C.

He has been meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Reed said he also is on the transportation committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which gives him an opportunity to meet regularly with leaders from the U.S. DOT.

Asked about Atlanta’s chances this time around, Reed said: “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

But Reed said his endorsement of the Atlanta Streetcar application in no way reflects any diminished commitment for his support of the Atlanta Beltline project.

“Don’t misread my decision as any lack of faith in the Atlanta Beltline,” Reed said.

In addition, Reed said he is using his positions of influence to help position the Atlanta Beltline for future federal funding. He has been giving Beltline bus tours to key officials, including a recent two hour tour with U.S Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

Reed chairs the Regional Transit Committee of the Atlanta Regional Commission, and he is on the local roundtable decision-making group that will come up with the transportation project list for how the regional penny sales tax would be allocated.

“We are aggressively pushing to fund the Atlanta Beltline,” Reed explained.

Phil Kent, chairman of the Atlanta Committee for Progress who has been helping raise private dollars for the Beltline, said the City hopes the Beltline will be able to get much more than $13.2 million that it was seeking in the TIGER II application.

So far, the Beltline has raised $35.5 million of its $60 million campaign goal, and Kent said he has seen uptick in donations as the economy has stabilized.

At the Beltline Networking group last week, ABI President Brian Leary said he agreed to go along with the mayor’s decision to not go after TIGER grant funding in this round, although several Beltline advocates clearly were not convinced that it was the right way to go.

“The federal playing field is where we need to be,” Leary said, explaining that the original Beltline model relied heavily on using tax allocation district funding. But the economic recession has brought real estate development to a complete stop, turning off the spigot for TAD dollars. “I made a commitment to the board — we are going to look behind every tree.”

But Leary said the Beltline had a strong TIGER application, but he agreed with the decision to withdraw the request at the last minute.

“Atlanta is well poised to be a winner in the next round of TIGER,” Leary said of the Atlanta Streetcar’s chances this time around.

Most importantly, the City presented a unified strategy rather than pitting one project against another.

(Earlier this decade, there was a destructive effort by a few City officials who tried unsuccessfully to shift the federal dollars allocated to commuter rail and the Multimodal station downtown to the Beltline. That was a flawed strategy that ended up hurting both projects).

The bottom line is that we need both the streetcar and the Beltline (and commuter rail and the Multimodal station) to create a web of transit options in the City of Atlanta.

So it’s not either/or. It’s both — in due time.

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.

15 replies
  1. juanita driggs says:

    It’s long past time for the Atlanta Beltline, Atlanta Streetcar and state multimodal projects to hammer out a mutually well thought out UNIFIED plan to pursue federal matching funds as ONE cohesive project instead of running in a lot of different directions. Not only is it confusing to and lost on the average citizen, these competitive interests are non-starter for federal bureaucrats who’re looking with favor at other venues(Charlotte and N. C. for eg.) which are going about it the right way. Keep it up and we’ll come away from the table with absolutely NOTHING. Why do we think we can build anything worthwhile when we continue to work at cross purposes? The chronic lack of leadership at all levels of government…local, regional and state are glaring.Report

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  2. Lewis says:

    In addition to a unified funding strategy, Atlanta needs a comprehensive transit strategy. One day it’s the Peachtree Streetcar. Next it’s the BeltLine. Immediately after, it’s the MLK District Streetcar. Plus the Multimodal station. Atlanta’s transit decision-making is random and politicized. Effective implementation of transit takes a long-term commitment and the piece parts must be assembled in an organized, structured manner. Unfortunately, Atlanta exhibits few of the necessary attributes and its efforts are sophomoric.Report

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  3. Burroughston Broch says:

    It is inevitable that these sorts of projects will compete with each other, just like too many piglets trying to nurse from one sow. Until there is an overall organization that has the power to prioritize projects and put the less important on the back burner, expect more of the same.
    To me, both should be put on the back burner because they don’t address the transportation problems of local residents.Report

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  4. Burroughston Broch says:

    Yr1215, I didn’t write anything about expanding roads. We should look at the entire region and all of the means of transportation available. Expanding the roads may be a part of it.
    By the way, there are plenty of ways to expand the roads, assuming that we are willing to pay the price and inconvenience to build them.Report

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  5. Mason Hicks says:

    “To me, both should be put on the back burner because they don’t address the transportation problems of local residents.”

    BB, Please explain this:

    A: How do these projects uniquely NOT address the transportation problems of “local residents”? I could definitely see that criticism for an interstate which by-passes a city.

    B: What “local residents” are you referring too?

    C: What projects would you place on the front-burner that do in fact address the transportation problems of “local residents”?Report

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  6. Yr1215 says:

    To build on a previous comment, the reason there are a lot of disjointed separate projects in the first place (that need to be somehow unified) is the failed MARTA leadership.

    MARTA has sat on its duff the last 15 years while other cities have expanded rail transit significantly. This has happened due to very poor financial and operational management.

    The operate day to day over there, and its bad for Atlanta…Report

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  7. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Mason Hicks.
    A. One project is for walking trails along the Beltline and the other is to carry tourists between Centennial Olympic Park and the King Center. Neither meets the transportation needs of local residents.
    B. People who live and work in metro Atlanta and could benefit from better local transportation. For example, me. I live in Dunwoody and work near Perimeter Mall, driving 28 miles/day and spending about 50 minutes/day in my car. If I could take public transportation most days at reasonable cost, I would. I could do it now if I don’t mind spending 3-4 hours/day on MARTA and Cobb Community Transport buses.
    C. Public transport should be the first consideration, and I don’t mean the MARTA model. MARTA is a union jobs program that just happens to do transportation. I have experienced good public transport in other cities in the US (San Francisco, Boston, NYC, Chicago) and elsewhere (London, Paris, Milan, Beijing). We need one coordinated system for metro Atlanta, not an uncoordinated mishmash as we have now.Report

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  8. Mason Hicks says:

    @BB.
    I would argue that quite a few residents are going to benefit from both of those projects, and I do mean for their transportation needs, not just for their recreation. Before I moved out of the area, I lived in Roswell, and worked Downtown. I was able to do so without using my car. That’s because I able to use a portion of the Alpharetta Big Creek Greenway as part of my commute route to get to the Mansell Road Park-and-Ride via bicycle. Likewise, many of my fellow co-workers rode their bikes to the office as well. They live in areas affected by these projects and they would argue vehemently that they will be using these projects once they are brought on-line as part of their daily commute. There is no way that all of the citizens in a region this size to be able to directly benefit from a single transit or transportation project.
    Beyond that, I do not find much else in your response that I disagree with. I now live in Paris, and no-longer own, or have any use for a car. I find it surprising that you have a 28 mile, round-trip commute when your origin and destination are within the same city-limits… You describe MARTA as being a “union jobs program”, (with implied contrast to …) “San Francisco, Boston, NYC, Chicago, London, Paris, Milan, and Beijing”. Are they not unionized? Admittedly,I know little about the union situation in Beijing, but I can assure you that all the rest are just as heavily unionized, if not even more so than MARTA. In fact; here in Paris, just this Tuesday much of the “non-unionized” RATP just participated in a day-long general strike. Thank goodness I shipped my bicycle over here.
    The Beltline is a multi-faceted project which will ultimately include transit, (probably light-rail). The parks and trails component is the portion that is currently at a point in the planning stage where it can start applying for Federal matching funding. The East-West Streetcar likewise is part of a larger picture project. However, the north-south component has perceived duplication issues with existing MARTA rail service which could hamper its chances with regard to the matching funding application at this stage. The funds being applied for in this case are prescribed by the Federal Transit Administration specifically towards streetcar or light rail type projects. The East-West Streetcar is what is on the Metro-Atlanta docket that fits the defined parameters. If Dunwoody had had the vision to plan for itself a similar project, then Dunwoody could have certainly applied for the same funding. Hopefully someday, that could happen. In the mean time, I would suggest that you get involved with these decisions at the Dunwoody level to make sure that Dunwoody has a seat at the table when these regional decisions are made; or to make sure that these decisions are in fact made, as the problem has been of late.
    A coordinated system for Metro Atlanta was what MARTA was originally envisioned to be. But it suffered immediately from the regional Balkanization that still exists. I have hope that with the acceptance of the Concept3 Transportation Master Plan in 2009, and the recent passage of the transportation Legislation to referendum that we can finally get on track for a coordinated system, but we will never get a single project that serves everyone on a daily basis.Report

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  9. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Mason Hicks.
    I am pleased that you had a good experience while living in Roswell. However, you had a straight shot on your bike to a MARTA express bus at Mansell Road. The Beltline walking trails (emphasis walking) will offer no such convenience and will not conveniently connect with MARTA. If they were serious about the Beltline offering transport, the transport would go in first. The streetcar is a tourist junket only only.

    I agree with you about unions elsewhere (particularly the French unions) but, when the unions are not on strike, the transport works very well indeed. MARTA never works well in my experience due to a multitude of problems. Chief among them are the works program mentality, complete disregard of stewardship of public funds, and stultifying bureaucracy. Let me give you an example of bureaucracy. An equipment supplier regularly sells product X to private industry. MARTA issues a tender for product X(the standard product, nothing unusual) and the supplier responds. Not knowing MARTA and having heard the horror stories about the bureaucracy, he adds 50% to his price, and is awarded the job. He submits complete details (1″ thick file)on product X as he does many times a year for private industry. MARTA rejects it. At the end of the process, he has a pile of paper 3 feet tall and has lost his shirt financially. He swore never, ever, to do business with MARTA, and hasn’t. His competitors have learned the same hard lesson. So now, the leeches who make a living off MARTA and their political connections supply the products at 3 to 3.5 times as much as private industry pays. It is a sad truth.Report

    Reply
  10. Jock Ellis says:

    There isn’t ever going to be transit on the beltline. That project got hijacked by the community organizers who want more parks. Now, Atlanta has over 315 parks as it is and they cannot keep them in good condition now. I know because I used to inspect them for the Land and Water Conservation Fund which is administered by the Parks Funding Unit of the Georgia DNR and has allocated funds to many of Atlanta’s parks.
    Just like so many other things Atlanta needs, it will not be able to find the money for even a 20 percent match.Report

    Reply
  11. Burroughston Broch says:

    Thanks, Angel. I read it and was astounded. 460 full-time jobs for 2.6 miles of streetcar? It’s another MARTA jobs program, masquerading as a transit program.Report

    Reply

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