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ATL Business Chronicle

City, groups seek stimulus funds for streetcar

By Maria Saporta
Friday, July 3, 2009

A public-private partnership is seeking as much as $300 million in federal stimulus funds to pay for the development of the Atlanta Streetcar project.

The city of Atlanta, MARTA, and the community improvement districts (CIDs) of Central Atlanta Progress and the Midtown Alliance are busy working on an application that’s due Sept. 15 for federal transportation stimulus dollars.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said the opportunity is “promising,” but she cautioned that Atlanta would be part of a national competition to tap into a$1.5 billion pool that is being distributed by the [CompanyWatch allows you to receive email alerts with stories related to your companies of interest.

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] U.S. Department of Transportation for shovel-ready projects.

“The streetcar and the Peachtree Corridor are projects that are of great interest to the city,” Franklin said. “We want to continue to move the project forward.”

CAP and the Midtown Alliance have agreed to contribute $300,000 each to help the city and MARTA put together the application, including environmental and engineering work for the project

“It’s going to be highly competitive,” said Beverly Scott, general manager of MARTA, which will use the $600,000 from the CIDs to pay its general planning consultant to put together the application.

[CompanyWatch allows you to receive email alerts with stories related to your companies of interest.

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] The Atlanta City Council and the MARTA board will have to vote to accept the $600,000 donation from the CIDs to pay for the streetcar application.

The idea to revive streetcars in Atlanta has been around for more than a decade. The Peachtree Corridor Task Force and the Peachtree Corridor Partnership — initiatives led by the business community — already have prepared much of the design work for the project.

Originally, the vision was to completely improve the urban experience of Peachtree Street by having a streetcar from Fort McPherson to Brookhaven and to have a tourist loop downtown. That had been expected to cost about $1 billion.

Since then, the organizations involved believe the first phase should connect downtown with Midtown as well as provide an east-west loop to link all the major tourist attractions in the central city. Estimates for the first phase have been for $200 million to $300 million, for six to 10 miles of track.

“The only reason this project is more ready to go is the work of the Peachtree Corridor Task Force,” Scott said. “About85 percent to 90 percent of the work that’s been done is usable work.”

Both Franklin and Scott said that if the stimulus dollars don’t come through for the project, the application that’s being prepared can be resubmitted for other initiatives, such as the reauthorization of the federal transportation funding bill and a possible new regional or statewide sales tax that could support transit.

“The work we are doing now is not for naught,” Franklin said. “Atlanta’s advantage is being ready for any one of those funding opportunities. This is not the time to wait for the funding and then get ready. The more ready you are, the better the chances are that you will get funding.”

Atlanta leaders are hopeful that the Obama administration will look favorably on the application because it combines the city, the transit agency and the business community.

“This is a unique public-private partnership,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress. “What’s unique is that Midtown and downtown have joined forces.”

Susan Mendheim, president of the Midtown Alliance, said her organization continues to be “100 percent supportive of the streetcar.”

“It’s an excellent, efficient, user-friendly way for people to get around the city without a car,” she said. “We feel like it will be the impetus for vibrancy on our city streets. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to cover our capital costs.”

Many issues will need to be worked out before the September deadline, specifically how the team proposes to cover the operating costs of the streetcar. A proposal to add another tax district along the route was not well-received by many property owners.

The city and MARTA also have been in a budget crisis, unable to pay for existing services.

“We certainly agreed we would do everything we could to support them, and we are providing the technical support,” Scott said. “But we are not in a position financially to provide funding or operations for the project.”

Several funding ideas are being considered for operations, and it’s likely that there will be another public-private partnership to cover those costs, which are expected to be several million dollars. The CIDs might be able to contribute some of their revenue.

MARTA and other transit agencies might be able to eliminate some of their existing bus service along the route and reallocate those funds to the streetcar. Another idea, which would need state approval, has been to levy a parking fee to subsidize the streetcar.

“We are trying to be opportunistic and visionary at the same time,” Robinson said. “We just didn’t feel we could pass up this opportunity.”

Maria Saporta

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.


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