By Maria Saporta
When the City of Atlanta first started envisioning a streetcar renaissance, the centerpiece idea was the “Peachtree Streetcar.”
Study after study showed that the corridor that had the greatest potential for ridership, economic development and private funding was along Peachtree Street from downtown to Midtown and eventually towards Buckhead.
Those initial plans also called for an east-west line to connect Centennial Olympic Park with the King Center along the Auburn Avenue and Edgewood Avenue corridor.
Fortunately, the city was able to secure federal funding to develop the downtown east-west line.
But today, it seems as though a severe case of amnesia has hit the City of Atlanta when it comes to the other all-important leg — the Peachtree Streetcar.
For reasons that can not be easily explained, the Peachtree Streetcar has gone from being the top priority to hardly making the list.
At the same time, the development of streetcars along the Atlanta BeltLine — both on the Eastside (where there would be a half-mile extension to connect to the streetcar serving the King Center, and on the Westside — have emerged as the highest priority.
During the regional negotiations that settled on the transportation project list for the one-percent transportation sales tax, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed fought valiantly to get funding for the BeltLine — in the end securing $600 million of the $6.14 billion project list.
But according to a proposed budget for transit funding for the BeltLine shows that the most expensive leg is not even along the BeltLine corridor. There’s a $227 million allocation for a “crosstown” line — to connect the eastside of the BeltLine with the westside of the BeltLine.
Fortunately there is some flexibility in the Transportation Investment Act for both route and the sequencing of the “BeltLine” streetcar.
Unfortunately, from my perspective, it seems as though decisions on the routes and the priorities have been made with limited public involvement and with a debatable set of criteria.
To be fair, Ethan Davidson, a spokesman for the Atlanta BeltLine, has a completely different perspective.
Davidson said the Atlanta BeltLine and the city have held 13 public meetings over the last 18 months to identify short-term and long-term implementation priorities. He said there also have been meetings with key stakeholders in the business, academic and civic sector.
“This has been a very thorough process where we have made every effort to get public and stakeholder input because it is so important to the future of the city and the region,” Davidson wrote in an email.
He went on to say that the criteria and the work has been based on previous planning efforts, including the Connect Atlanta Plan and the regional transit plan known as Concept 3. He also said the Atlanta BeltLine has hired “some of the best consultants in the country to help develop the transit implementation strategy.”
But there is no question that these decisions will have far-reaching implications on the future of development in Atlanta and how people will circulate for decades to come.
Specifically, one of the pivotal decisions that’s in the process of being made is whether the crosstown route should travel along North Avenue or whether it should travel along 10th Street.
As with any such decision, there are advantages and disadvantages to both routes. A North Avenue route would connect the future Ponce City Market with the North Avenue MARTA station and then to Coca-Cola Co. headquarters.
A 10th Street route would connect Piedmont Park with the Midtown MARTA station and then to the heart of the Georgia Tech campus and the vibrant West Midtown area.
Other ideas exist to have the “crosstown” connection extend the Auburn-Edgewood streetcar line along Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. on towards the Atlanta University Center.
As someone who believes we need all the transit we can get, I can see merit to all of those routes. And I also believe that we will need an extensive streetcar network within the city limits to give Atlantans the ability to travel without having to rely on their cars.
To put the situation in perspective, Ashley Robbins, president of the Citizens for Progressive Transit, observed last week that 65 years ago, Atlanta once had streetcars traveling along many of the routes that currently are on the drawing boards. In fact, she said April 10 was the 63rd anniversary of the end of streetcars in Atlanta.
Today we can lament the decisions made seven decades ago to remove streetcars from our city’s streets. We can imagine how different out city would be today if we had continued our investment in an urban streetcar system.
Now that we are reinvesting in transit and streetcars, we need to be sure we are making wise decisions on where and when we should place the next lines and how they will work together as a transit network for Atlanta and the region.
Joshua Mello, assistant director of transportation for the City of Atlanta’s Department of Planning, said a set of criteria is being used to rank possible streetcar lines as part of the city’s Transit Implementation Strategy. The criteria includes equity, ridership, economic development, redevelopment, private funding and cost.
Mello said the city is working on which projects should be built within the next five years and which would be part of the following phase. Right now it sounds as though the city is leaning in favor of the North Avenue corridor rather than 10th Street, and it appears that plans for the Peachtree Streetcar is being placed in a file drawer for another day.
Personally, I believe both of these decisions are flawed.
Creating a rail transit link from the Midtown MARTA Station to Piedmont Park makes all the sense in the world. Plus the BeltLine streetcar currently is slated to end at 10th Street. That means there could be a wonderful loop of having a streetcar begin at Centennial Olympic Park, connect the King Center, then connect with Freedom Park, the Historic Fourth Ward Park with Piedmont Park.
If there were to be a Peachtree Streetcar, then that loop could be complete.
The Peachtree Streetcar also would connect key destination centers — from downtown to Emory’s Midtown Hospital (Crawford Long) to the Fox Theatre to 10th Street to 14th Street to the Arts Center to SCAD and Brookwood Station.
Mello actually said a Peachtree Streetcar from the Arts Center to Piedmont Hospital actually scored quite high — largely because there is no MARTA line along that corridor.
I also see great merit in having an east-west line connecting Georgia State University with the Atlanta University Center. Davidson did say that a line to the Atlanta University Center is a top priority.
The bottom line — the decision on where Atlanta should locate future streetcar lines really does matter.
And those decisions should be made in the full light of day with as much public participation and with as much solid independent analysis as possible.
That’s the only way we’ll make the best decision possible.