By Maria Saporta
When my children were young, one of their favorite series of books were the “Where’s Spot?” books. Each page had flaps, and Spot would be hiding under one of the flaps.
I felt I was reading the “Where’s Spot” books as I was looking through pages and pages of different City of Atlanta lists for MARTA and the Transportation Special Purpose Local Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) projects.
Something was missing. The Peachtree Streetcar.
When we first started talking about reintroducing streetcars to our city more than a decade ago, the one signature route proposed was Peachtree.
Like most of the other U.S. cities that have reintroduced streetcars, Atlanta leaders saw the merit of the streetcar traveling along our main street.
The first public urging for the Peachtree Streetcar happened at the Midtown Alliance annual meeting on Nov. 15, 2002 when new urbanist Andres Duany spoke of the commercial corridor being a natural for a streetcar.
The idea took hold, and Atlanta had a plan to build a streetcar that would travel from Fort McPherson to Buckhead as well as a streetcar to go from Centennial Olympic Park to the King Center. The first proposal, which would have cost nearly $300 million, did not get the green light from the federal government.
So Atlanta reapplied asking to build only the East-West line. The reason that line came first was because the streetcars would need a maintenance facility, and that was going to be located on under the Downtown Connector along the East-West line.
The intention at the time was to build out the Peachtree Streetcar as part of the next phase to help make it part of a connected system.
So why Peachtree?
A study done for Central Atlanta Progress, the Midtown Alliance and Buckhead Community Improvement District showed that nearly 60 percent of all the city’s jobs are based along the Peachtree corridor – from downtown to Buckhead.
Also, 7 percent of all the state’s tax revenues comes from that corridor. It is the spine – physically and economically – of Atlanta.
Some people will argue that a Peachtree Streetcar would parallel MARTA’s north-south line and that the Federal Transit Administration would not contribute to that effort. But in conversations with FTA, I was told the city would need to show that the two transit modes would serve different purposes.
A subway gives people an opportunity to go long stretches rather quickly. A streetcar gives riders the opportunity to jump on and off every few blocks, creating a mode that complements pedestrians and a street-level retail.
A Peachtree Streetcar also could do wonders in reknitting our city – connecting downtown with Midtown and connecting Midtown with Buckhead.
The stretch of Peachtree between the Arts Center Station and the Buckhead Station actually is significant underserved by transit. Imagine if one could ride a streetcar from SCAD to Piedmont Hospital or Peachtree Battle or West Paces Ferry Road.
People also say there’s a matter of equity. All the more reason to have a streetcar. With all the hotels, buildings and stores along Peachtree, providing a new mode of transportation would give lower-income workers more access to those jobs.
Others will say we need to place streetcars where there is little economic activity so we can spur new development. But for our streetcar system to be successful, it will need to be part of an interwoven system that connects destinations and activity centers. To ignore Peachtree in that planning effort is irresponsible.
Lastly, another argument is that leaders in Buckhead and even Midtown don’t really want a Peachtree Streetcar. Remember, Buckhead also fought bicycle lanes on Peachtree Street.
Atlanta is changing. It is adding new residents and employees on a daily basis. If we want to be sure that not all of our new citizens are driving a car to their homes and their jobs, we need to make sure we offer transportation alternatives. They include transit, cycling and walking – creating a city that works without cars.
If we don’t plan for a well-designed multimodal system, we are destined to become a big parking lot.
When asked about the missing Peachtree Streetcar, I was told there would be enhanced bus service on Atlanta’s main corridor. One of the reasons why Peachtree bicycle lanes were not included in a transportation plan of the Midtown Alliance was that buses would have to stop to pick up and drop off passengers in the bike lanes.
But if we had streetcars riding in the middle of Peachtree, it would create a boulevard design for Peachtree offering an island for pedestrians without conflicting with bike lanes.
A Peachtree Streetcar would help give people yet another reason to not drive on Atlanta’s best-known street.
Whether we like it or not, Atlanta is becoming more densely populated, and we will have to adjust our travel patterns to make room for our new neighbors.
We can prepare for what’s coming by investing in expanded light rail transit so we won’t have to keep asking: “Where’s the Peachtree Streetcar?”