Park to park: Connecting Atlanta communities with a future-proof streetcar
By Guest Columnist HOWARD S. WERTHEIMER, FAIA, executive vice president and chief operating officer at the Piedmont Park Conservancy.
A number of years ago, when I was leading the Office of Capital Planning and Space Management at Georgia Tech, at a time when the City of Atlanta was deep into the throngs about building a streetcar system, many people questioned the merits of making such a significant financial investment into a transit modality with limited flexibility.
At that time, I challenged city and business leaders to THINK BIG – to future-proof the dialogue and the vision, particularly if the City of Atlanta wanted to define itself to be a technological city for the 21st century.
It was more than obvious to many thought leaders that we should not invest in 19th century technologies, especially at an initial cost of $72 million per mile (which eventually grew to $98 million per mile). Laying steel track provided no flexibility if the financial gamble did not pay off. Proponents were citing how financially successful Portland had been with economic development around their streetcar investment. Opponents stated that Atlanta is not Portland.
Like other cities plagued with trying to be like Portland, Atlanta built a streetcar that has been nothing short of a failure.
At that time, I had proposed conducting an international design competition to design a 21st century streetcar that was on tires instead of wires and used 100 percent renewable energy technologies. In addition to eliminating an unsightly web of overhead wires and electrical poles littering our sidewalks, a streetcar on tires provided 100 percent flexibility, which would be particularly beneficial if routes needed to be adapted to follow development patterns. Steel tracks offer no flexibility. And with Atlanta's growing bicycle culture (e-scooters were not part of the lexicon back then), tracks provided a tremendous hazard for those who were seeking alternative, sustainable and flexible transportation options.
Fast forward to current conversations and debates about transit on the Atlanta BeltLine.
What my friend Ryan Gravel imagined in his master's thesis in 1999 has been incredibly transformational: A 22-mile trail on out-of-service railroad tracks, another vestige from the 19th century, connecting at least 45 neighborhoods. The BeltLine is fast becoming a model of innovation. Currently, the BeltLine is for heels and wheels (and dogs too!). There is no transit or rail on the BeltLine as originally envisioned, and it is enormously successful with these modes of transportation. Transit on the BeltLine is not the appropriate solution for taking the BeltLine from Good to Great. Innovative connectivity is.
Imagine a different vision for our future that leverages MARTA, the BeltLine, and everything in between. With current investments focused on the development of Quarry Park to the west, Atlanta will soon have two significant public parks. Rather than investing in rail on the BeltLine, imagine a 21st century streetcar that travels east to west, connecting the iconic and historic Olmsted-designed Piedmont Park to the east, and the shiny new Quarry Park to the west. Running along the 10th Street corridor, this streetcar would connect Piedmont Park, Virginia Highlands, Midtown, Turner Broadcasting, Georgia Tech, Home Park, West Midtown, Marietta Street, Northside Drive, Bankhead, Adair Park, Martin Luther King Boulevard, Berkeley Park, and of course, Quarry Park.
Imagine what would happen if industrial designer Raymond Loewy, innovator John DeLorean, and technology entrepreneur Elon Musk had a beer at Manuel's Tavern? You can be assured they wouldn't walk out proposing that Atlanta build a 19th century transit solution, especially on the BeltLine.
Those desiring to use rail can hop on MARTA at the Midtown Station or Bankhead Station, with additional connectivity to the Red, Blue, Green and Gold lines, simply by preserving the BeltLine as it operates today for heels and wheels. Meantime, Atlanta can press forward with an international design competition for a sustainably designed and operated streetcar for our technologically innovative 21st century city.
At a cost of $1 million to $2 million per vehicle, headways could easily be less than 10 minutes to 12 minutes, regardless of traffic conditions. The other added benefit is these streetcars can operate on existing streets, requiring little or no additional infrastructure investments or improvements, bringing this transit option to market within the next three years to five years, well in advance of the completion of the first phase of Quarry Park. If nothing else, it's worth moving forward with this idea as a pilot project, since it will be decades before funding becomes available for transit on the Beltline if it is determined that it's necessary.
The current plan calls for investing billions of dollars and waiting until 2040 for transit on the Beltline. By 2040, we might be using jet packs or some other mode of personal transportation, making this billion-dollar investment totally irrelevant. If nothing else, it's worth moving forward with this idea as a pilot project, since it will be decades before funding becomes available for transit on the BeltLine if it is determined that it's necessary.
If there is concern about congestion on 10th Street, perhaps we should put 10th Street on a road diet similar to what was recently completed on 10th Street between Monroe Drive and Piedmont Avenue. In this instance, a four-lane road became a two-lane road, with a dedicated cycle track to the North and on-street parking to the South. Obviously, other sections might require different solutions.
For instance, between the I-75/I-85 Downtown Connector and Northside Drive, perhaps 10th Street goes from four lanes to three lanes, with a common center turn lane and dedicated bike lanes or a cycle track. With so many curb cuts, driveways and traffic lights along this segment of 10th Street, the two inner lanes currently act as singular turn lanes, stifling vehicular flow in both directions.
Atlanta's 10th Street provides the greatest opportunity for critical impact and instant success due to the existing density along this corridor. In addition to significant upfront capital cost savings as well as long-term operational and maintenance cost savings, the solution of tires instead of wires provides total flexibility and adaptability to modify, eliminate and add additional routes as necessary.
This is not a multi-billion-dollar, multi-decade time investment that most baby boomers would never live to see. This is a realistic, achievable, sustainable, affordable, flexible solution to connect our neighborhoods and our communities for decades to come and, because of the billions of dollars of cost avoidance, ridership would be free. Then, in seven years to 10 years, when we need to revamp the fleet of streetcars, we can conduct another international design competition, leveraging state of the art renewable energy technologies and the most talented designers in the world. Let's do this!
Note to readers: Howard S. Wertheimer, FAIA, served as the assistant vice president for capital planning and space management, and as institute architect, at Georgia Tech from 2006 to 2013. He is now the executive vice president and chief operating officer at the Piedmont Park Conservancy. The views stated in this article reflect the views of the author and not the Piedmont Park Conservancy.