Council committee puts Atlanta-BeltLine streetcar plans on hold

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta’s future streetcar lines may need further review.

The Atlanta City Council’s Community Development Committee on Tuesday decided to table a proposal presented by the Atlanta BeltLine Inc. that would have outlined the next four phases of the development of streetcars in Atlanta.

The goal had been to get the committee to recommend the Atlanta BeltLine/Atlanta Streetcar System Plan as a supplement to the city’s Connect Atlanta plan. Then that recommendation could have been voted on by the full City Council at next Monday’s meeting.

Instead, the plan has now been placed on an indefinite hold.

City Councilmember Kwanza Hall made a motion to hold the bill after receiving a letter from the downtown business community urging City Council to wait until the 2.7 mile Atlanta Streetcar line that is currently under construction is up and running.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea waiting a little bit until we get this streetcar operational,” Hall said, adding that it was important to make sure that the right routes were selected in future phases. That would involve some “serious conversation” with different partners in the city.

“We don’t lose anything (by waiting),” Hall added.

Councilman Ivory Young also questioned some of the priorities and evaluation guidelines that had been used by the Atlanta BeltLine to select the routes.

“The streetcar is a no brainer if you have hundreds of thousands of people that are at either end with destinations,” Young said. “But you don’t want a bridge to nowhere — I don’t want us to fall into the trap of building rail to nowhere. Rail comes where you have a destination.”

Young said that you start with having transit at the core, and as the communities are developed, then you “build the legs of the streetcar” to those destinations.

The plan being proposed by Atlanta BeltLine Inc had four phases.

The first included: the Atlanta Streetcar East Extension on Irwin Street, the Atlanta Streetcar West Extension on Luckie Street, the Crosstown-Midtown route along North Avenue, the East Atlanta BeltLine, the West Atlanta BeltLine (part of the Southwest Corridor) and a short link to the Multimodal Passenger Terminal. Total cost: $661 million.

The second phase includes: the Southeast Atlanta BeltLine to Glenwood Park, Southwest Atlanta BeltLine, Atlanta University Center East, downtown to Grant Park. Total cost: $497 million.

There’s a third phase that would cost $990 million. And finally, there’s the fourth phase, which includes a hodge-podge of difficult to build transit projects, and that phase includes the Peachtree Streetcar — which has already been labeled “shovel ready.” Phase four’s cost: $1.5 billion.

The BeltLine’s projected timing estimates that it would take at least 20 years to build out the entire system.

Earlier in the meeting, City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms was excited to see a streetcar line serving the Greenbriar area, even though it was slated to be built in the third phase. She then questioned whether she would see it in her lifetime.

Then Councilman Michael Julian Bond said that if it were up to him, the city would plan to have twice as many streetcar lines as the ones outlined on the map that was present to City Council.

“We need more streetcar routes,” said Bond, adding that other cities have had tremendous economic development and tourism success when they have invested in transit. “Where they build light rail, it’s a license to print money.”

The committee ended up voting unanimously to hold the BeltLine’s Streetcar plan.

At the Transportation Committee on Wednesday, although the Atlanta BeltLine/Atlanta Streetcar System Plan was not on the agenda, it did end up becoming a discussion item during the meeting.

Former Atlanta City Councilman Doug Alexander addressed concerns that the city had turned over all its streetcar planning to Atlanta BeltLine Inc. Because the BeltLine folks are in charge of streetcar planning, their focus will be on one priority — the BeltLine, rather than the city as a whole, Alexander said.

Tom Weyandt, deputy chief operating officer for the City of Atlanta, told Alexander and the committee that the city had entered into a services agreement with Atlanta BeltLine Inc. last year to do detailed design and environment studies for the streetcar.

“I’m confident that the connection between Atlanta BeltLine Inc. and the city is quite solid here, Weyandt said, adding that he could understand why people were “admittedly confused” by the different agencies at the city and which one actually was in charge of transit planning.

During both meetings, only slight mention was given to the Peachtree Streetcar, which  had been an impetus more than a decade ago to get Atlanta to start seriously considering the streetcar as an alternative mode of transportation for the city.

In fact, after I had written my Maria’s Metro column on Sunday, Doug Alexander sent me a “How soon we forget” email reminding me that it was not Andres Duany who first proposed bringing streetcars back to Atlanta’s streets.

He sent me a link to an article that appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his ideas to take Atlanta into the future by building out a transportations system that we had in the 1920s. The first streetcar line that he proposed? A streetcar line from the King Center to Centennial Olympic Park, up Auburn Avenue and back through Edgewood.

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.

24 replies
  1. DougAlexander says:

    What said does not address nor does it contradict my concerns about ABI’s bias towards “their” project over others.
    Such bias is natural. I do not question the expertise or the professionalism of the planning staff at ABI, but I have had direct, personal experience with them when I was with GDOT, and their passion for the Beltline is palpable.
    But because of this bias, I don’t believe that ABI can make plans for other projects–any other projects, not just the — without that bias having an effect on their proposals.
    The City has a contract with ABI for this study, the money has been spent, and the product is on the table. In considering this report, I just ask that the Council take ABI’s plans for the Atlanta Streetcar with a couple of grains of salt.
    P.S.:  I appreciate you putting the link to my blog in the article, Maria. But I think I ought to point out that the “idea” for a streetcar was actually on some plans I saw in 1995 for the revitalization of Auburn Avenue at City Hall.  But in all the discussions, I heard nothing about this and so I picked that ball up and threw it.  I wish I knew who had included the cars on those plans 25 years ago.  I’d much prefer that person got all the credit.Report

  2. atlman says:

    I disagree with Kwanza Hall and Doug Alexander. The Beltline planning needs to get put into place while Atlanta still has a mayor with both the will and political/administrative capability to execute it, or at least lay the groundwork. Bill Campbell lacked both. Shirley Campbell got the ball rolling in some respects but preferred being “mayor pothole” (when the potholes were never actually fixed) and “mayor sewers” to avoid criticism from those who simply want the city to fail anyway, so she never took on tough, controversial battles like the pensions problem, the school board issue, or stadiums/economic development. There is no telling whether the next mayor will be another Reed (who love him or hate him has the private sector experience as a corporate lawyer and public sector experience of working with GOPers in the legislature to actually advance an agenda). It might be another cautious Campbell type, or another social welfare/affirmative action – excuse me, social justice progressive – type, or someone who is deluded enough to believe that supply side economics actually works for urban centers (my biggest fear with a Mary Norwood getting elected). So why not just submit the proposal now and then update it later? The thing is to secure funding for the Beltline from the feds (and from the state!) as soon as possible. Right now Atlanta has a friendly administration (Obama and Fox at DOT) and a friendly face in the governor’s chair and Democratic control of the U.S. Senate, who has the ability to alter budgeting priorities. That could change, and quickly. 
    As far as Doug Alexander goes, the Beltline will help the city as a whole by attracting the residents that used to live in the suburbs or even move to other metro areas because of a lack of livable areas in the city. The hipsters and yuppies that will live near the Beltline development (and incidentally using the Beltline to rebrand public transportation in this city away from MARTA was brilliant PR on the part of the corporate lawyer Reed) will improve the tax base, and their kids will improve the public schools (which is why Mayor Reed needs to join other moderate big city mayors in backing charter schools but that is another story for another day). The parts of the city that are not directly affected by the Beltline need to come up with their own ideas to help their areas and the city. So far, they haven’t and that is precisely the problem with Hall and most of the folks on the council: they have no ideas beyond “we need more spending on housing, education, health care and welfare” stuff that hasn’t worked for a single city in the United States in 50 years of Great Society policy of trying. The Beltline can’t and shouldn’t be this pot of money that everyone tries to grab cash out of to improve their own areas and fund their own projects. It has to be a targeted, specific project if it is going to succeed. Otherwise it will be a boondoggle that may well take the entire city down with it.Report

  3. jamalA says:

    Wow, Kwanza Hall & a Ivory Young possessing a Architectural background have brought into Maria’s whining about a unnecessary for right now streetcar line going down P’tree, unbelievable. There is noting impracticable in the current Phases of completing the circle before coming back to tie-in the P’tree St. corridor that is already more than adequately served by federal tax dollars & nearly front door options.Report

  4. jamalA says:

    atlman Just stop, really please stop the paternalism! Those of us currently living in the city because we’ve always seen the city as a place to fulfill it’s true premise as a dynamic urban space don’t require someone else’s kids to make our school systems better or market liveable communities next to new transit lines like the Beltline to be reserved for wannabe hipsters, we just want people who believe in & support the possibilities, period. Your idea of re branding Marta after the 40 yr history of the state’s intransigence against everything Marta has done to be accommodating are just juvenile.Report

  5. DougAlexander says:

    atlman You completely misunderstand me.  Nowhere have I said that the Beltline should not be built.  What I AM saying is that Streetcar planning ought not be done by the Beltline, and that’s because there is a conflict of interest.
    Beltline planners put the needs of their project in front of the needs of all other projects.  I have experienced this first-hand.  That they should do this is perfectly understandable. 
    But the Streetcar, which is about the same things you list for the Beltline and just as worthy, is a separate project, and it competes with ABI for federal funding from many (but not all) of the same federal programs.  So it is not in the interests of Atlanta Streetcar to have an organization which is sometimes in direct competition with it do its planning.
    That has been my only point.
    However, I suspect you have other issues about this whole thing, and that what I have to say will have no effect on them for you.Report

  6. DougAlexander says:

    jamalA Of course there isn’t anything “impracticable ” about completing the circle.  But is it the best use of limited funds?  Shouldn’t, as Maria asked, transit be built where it will get the most use? 
    ABI says that is not one of their criteria.  I don’t know what their metrics are, but I can assure you they are designed to put the Beltline at the top of all considerations.  And that is why ABI should not even be in the business of planning other programs that are in competition with it in any way.  If they need work to keep their team together, then do planning for other cities.
    Of course a streetcar line on Peachtree might ought to be put last, but I for one question ABI’s objectivity.Report

  7. jamalA says:

    DougAlexander jamalAI’m just now finishing your blog piece, it’s a interesting piece of history I was unaware of that I enjoyed reading. So, you agree this is about the P’tree corridor, but as people pointed out in Maria’s previous post if there is a mad desire for it to be “first or next” let them fund it or attempt too.It’s a interesting thing about metrics the only varifiable one we have are the people currently riding public transit as it exisits to be the one’s who will naturally gravitate to a fixed-streetcar line, not the expensive bet we’re going through of embracing all the wannbe’s who say they can’t wait for this, it’s a constant discussion among friends who support the Beltline with a realistic view of what we hope to see in our lifetime.Report

  8. mnst says:

    It’s so incredibly frustrating to see Atlanta pour money into having a wonderfully-designed transit system planned, only to see it even further delayed by parochial interests of those who think they should build it in their neighborhood first. Let’s stick with the plan, Atlanta.Report

  9. mnst says:

    DougAlexander I really recommend reading the streetcar final report! The reason it was planned the way it was is because there’s not NEARLY enough public funding to afford to build the streetcar out. By building the streetcar in under-developed parts of town, the increased property taxes received by the city after nearby properties are redeveloped will help pay for the rest of the streetcar. If we built it on Peachtree today, there wouldn’t be the same burst of new development that you’ve seen on the Eastside trail. 
    It’s great to see people interested in the streetcar, and wanting it to be the best it can be, but we really shouldn’t ignore the intelligent reasoning behind the way it has been designed.Report

  10. Burroughston Broch says:

    mnst  If the first project were so wonderfully designed, there would not be massive cost and schedule overruns for dealing with “unanticipated” underground utilities.
    The business community is correct to suggest gauging how the first project performs before starting a stampede to do the others. My guess is that, after the new wears off, ridership will be low, expenses will be high, and it will be a money pit.
    As for me, I will continue to ride MARTA heavy rail and save both time and money.Report

  11. mnst says:

    Burroughston Broch Doubtful; when was the last time a transportation project didn’t go over budget and over schedule? Shall we cancel the GA400-I85N interchange because it too is behind schedule?
    The fact of the matter is that the delays and cost overruns of the streetcar were due to the relocation of previously-unknown underground utilities running under the street. If your principal issue with the streetcar is its tardiness and cost, you should be happy to see that they plan to build the streetcar along the BeltLine next, where they won’t have to contend with busting up a street to commence construction.Report

  12. Burroughston Broch says:

    There are no previously unknown utilities, just lack of competence, research and exploration.
    Building the next leg along the BeltLine is not smart because it won’t generate much income. The next phase should be built where it will earn the largest financial return.Report

  13. mnst says:

    Burroughston [email protected] Broch Come on now, articles right on this site contradict you now. 

    “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.”

    “Atlanta is using property tax revenue to acquire land and help develop the network of trails, parks and amenities. Private investors are developing housing and commercial structures in a special BeltLine tax allocation district. These new investments are creating the increase in property taxes that is paying for the public amenities.”

    The economic impact of the BeltLine isn’t about the number of people paying a fare to ride it; it’s about the much greater effect of investment along its route generating new property taxes on currently under-utilized or abandoned property. So much has been built on the Eastside trail already, that will only increase further with the introduction of a rapid transit element to the corridor.Report

  14. atlman says:

    jamalA atlman  
    It is not paternalism but it is reality-based thinking. The city needs more educated, high income professionals and two parent families and fewer (in terms of the percentage of the population) 
    A) lower income, service/retail industry type workers
    B) senior citizens
    C) government employees
    D) single parent families
    I am sorry, but the pie in the sky rah rah stuff at some point has to end and we have to deal with actual socioeconomics. If Atlanta’s current population was capable of producing an average (let alone above average or excellent) public school system, for example, it would have it already because APS spends more per student than any system in the state and is among the highest in the southeast (especially when cost of living is factored in). But the problem is that a high single parent population combined with a large population of people who do not value or have a competitive attitude towards education and this is the result. 
    Ditto with the economic picture. Working class, working poor and senior citizens can’t even afford to go to Falcons games anymore. So you expect them to support high end retail establishments? They also aren’t going to create businesses beyond barbershops and small restaurants, not tech startups. (They aren’t going to work for those tech startups either.)
    Also, I am weary of the Spike Lee type hypocrisy. Urban advocates, urban politicians, academics, civil rights leaders etc. spent DECADES blaming the decline of Atlanta and other urban areas on “white flight” which according to them took away the tax base, job creators, high performing students, etc. Now that the hipsters (white people) are returning, we want to say “who wants them/who needs them”? Please. I am glad to see this influx of educated, high income white people that (unlike their parents and grandparents) do not mind being governed by black politicians and black-run institutions and don’t mind competing for jobs with a black professional class. They could have done the same thing that whites (and not a few blacks mind you!) spent the last 20 years doing when they came to this area, which was to settle in Cobb, Gwinnett, Rockdale, Forsyth etc. Instead they are choosing to live in Atlanta (with its higher taxes, more crime and social problems, worse schools etc.) and that is a good thing, not a bad thing. 
    Sorry, but your thinking is what is holding so many urban areas back. And yes, MARTA does need rebranding. MARTA’s problems are a COMBINATION of southern strategy politics and their own management issues. Why didn’t MARTA hire someone like Keith Parker 15 years ago? During the 1980s and 1990s, the MARTA leadership went off the rails and began to use the agency as A) a jobs program and B) a platform to advocate for social justice. Why did MARTA wait until the state was on the verge of chopping the agency up and privatizing it to start focusing on simple things like clean bathrooms and running off vagrants/panhandlers? Too many urban areas have used antagonism by whites/Republicans/suburbanites (which is very real, as several commenters who frequent this site for the sole purpose of making negative comments about the city and its leadership prove) as a carte blanche to not even try to aspire towards competent, effective governance. You had the Bill Campbell mess (remember when he made his driver, a low level officer, the police chief of a major city right during a crime explosion!!!), the MARTA nonsense, the refusal to deal with the sewer issue or the infrastructure backlog, the absolute cluelessness of Fulton County (where “social justice” types, career activists, gadflies etc. care more about making speeches than governing), the pensions issues that were spiraling out of control, you name it.Report

  15. atlman says:

    DougAlexander atlman  
    This statement is legitimate. However, allow me to propose that I have more confidence in the Beltline’s ability to plan this project than I do pretty much anyone else.
    Look at some of the other possibilities.
    A) Atlanta City Hall. Imagine if the Atlanta mayor’s office reverts from an effective politician and manager like Reed back to a placeholder like Shirley Franklin (who was willing to settle for the title of “first female mayor” and was simply trying her best not to mess that distinction up). Or to another former civil rights type with little experience in/interest for day-to-day governance like Andrew Young. Or to another fellow who is primarily concerned with affirmative action/poverty type programs like Maynard Jackson. Or to another dumpster fire like Bill Campbell. Or to a north Atlanta Republican wanting to appeal to that base by appearing to be fiscal conservative like Mary Norwood (who would just pull the plug on the project half-done the way that Mitt Romney did to the Big Dig). 
    B) Fulton County government. You know, the same folks who forgot to buy locks for the jails, and whose preference for speeches and activism over actual governance cost the city the Braves and has even majority black and lower income south Fulton trying to incorporate. 
    C) MARTA. Keith Parker is doing a good job now, but what about 5 years from now?
    D) The Georgia DOT. Ummm … yeah … right. Next!!!
    Because of the Beltline’s structure, there is a much greater chance of their having a consistently engaged, competent, ethical leadership team than any other alternative. If your position is that the Streetcar project should create a management structure similar to that of the Beltline or be given to someone like Invest Atlanta (who has been doing a decent job during the Reed administration but where were they before now, and also since the leader of Invest Atlanta is going to the Metro Chamber of Commerce are even they going to be able to maintain their recent track record of success?) then I will gladly agree with you. But short of that, we have to acknowledge that in many cases Atlanta succeeds in spite of its political leadership rather than because of it. The 1996 Olympics was a success precisely because its management was largely offloaded to a Beltline-type management team, remember? Let Atlanta prove that it is capable of electing two good mayors back to back (and we are still waiting for Atlanta to produce a truly quality city council) before putting large long term infrastructure projects in their hands.Report

  16. Burroughston Broch says:

    mnst You missed what I wrote, so I’ll repeat it.
    There are no previously unknown utilities, just lack of competence, research and exploration. The designers didn’t do their jobs and the contractors are having to address utilities as they are encountered, and are submitting large change orders for more money and time.Report

  17. mnst says:

    Burroughston Broch I didn’t miss what you wrote, I corrected you. The utilities under the street were UNMARKED and couldn’t be found until, you know, they looked under the street.Report

  18. Burroughston Broch says:

    mnst It doesn’t seem you know enough about the subject to correct anyone.
    Normal professional practice is to survey the route, work with the utility companies to identify their underground facilities (they have maps), and then pinpoint the utility locations using non-invasive surveying tools. The information obtained is then used to design the new work to avoid utility conflicts wherever possible, to show how utilities must be rerouted if necessary, and caution the Contractor about what utilities exist.
    Only the foolish open up the streets first without this design work. MARTA’s subterranean work was much more challenging than a streetcar, and they began with proper design. Why should the streetcar be different?Report

  19. DougAlexander says:

    mnst DougAlexanderI HAVE read the report. Of course there is reasoning behind
    the plan, but the level of intelligence may not be as great as you
    suspect.For example, were the car lines
    build along Peachtree, those properties’ values would ALSO go up as a result of
    easier access, and they’d go up, and certainly by a greater percentage than in
    other parts of the city that are less well-developed.
    There can be no denying the effect that the Eastside Trail
    has had on development; I can only hope that the Beltline is able to get the
    transit that is supposed to be the key to it up and running soon.
    But I must warn you about one thing:there is no guarantee that any increase in
    revenue to the city brought about by the streetcar or by the beltline will be
    plowed back into either project.City
    Government is incredibly parochial and many Council Members can’t see past
    their own noses (this is not just in Atlanta, of course, but Atlanta is what I
    know best).
    Back in 1995 I had worked a deal with GDOT to swap projects
    (Phase II of the Spring Street Viaduct) so that we could use $16 million in
    Infrastructure bond funds to match federal funds earmarked for the MMPT
    project.As soon as the papers were
    signed, Mayor Campbell directed $12 million to be moved into various
    bond-funded projects that were over-budget (imagine that!) and cover their
    butts on those projects.When I
    discovered this treachery I tried to sequester the remaining four million for
    the MMPT, but my dear colleagues on the Council decided that there were some
    projects in their districts that needed funding, and so the $4 million went
    away too.
    Some of those who did this still pay lip service to the MMPT
    project, but I know what is really in their hearts.
    The state finally did get the City to cough up $1 million to
    keep federal funds in play for the station, but this only happened after GDOT
    made it very clear that because the City had broken its part of the deal, the
    State would feel free to do likewise.And boy howdy, did councilmembers and city planners complain about that!
    I for one felt that a little justice had been done, at

  20. Atl_Architect says:

    Its a no brainer. To work in synergy with Marta and maximize ridership, the next phase of the street car should go down Peachtree to Lenox, the major spine of the city. It then can then grow out from there, cross town, and so forth. Piecemeal; a leg here and a leg there is not  going to work.Report


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