The $47.6 million streetcar grant endorses Atlanta’s transportation strategy

By Maria Saporta

A year ago, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told Georgia leaders that they didn’t have their act together.

And LaHood’s perspective helped explain why Georgia couldn’t seem to get any major federal transportation dollars out of the Obama administration.

So LaHood’s comments on Wednesday morning were particularly poignant.

“We are here today because you all have your act together,” LaHood told the coalition of Atlanta business, civic and government leaders as he handed over a gigantic check of $47.6 million for the Atlanta Streetcar project.

“People have come together around a common agenda,” LaHood added. “You are a model for it. I hope that the state will take your lead and also become a model.”

The funding of the streetcar highlights the special relationship that the City of Atlanta has established with the Obama administration, and it points out the disconnect that exists between the state leadership and the federal government.

It’s not just politics — even though politics does play an important role. The urban core of Atlanta is a blue island in a red state. It has developed strong links with the Democratically-controlled Congress, and more importantly, with the Obama administration.

Look at who was present Wednesday morning at the press conference at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site’s outdoor ampitheater across from the Old Ebenezer Baptist Church..

There was U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat; U.S. Rep. David Scott and U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson — both Democrats. Championing the Atlanta bid for the streetcar were Mayor Kasim Reed, and his predecessor, Mayor Shirley Franklin, both Democrats.

All of these elected officials have been hard at work building bridges and relationships with the Obama administration, and they all have reminded the leaders in Washington, D.C. that a large base of their support comes from urban areas.

But it is so much more than raw politics. The reason that Atlanta received the federal streetcar grant is because its transportation policies are in sync with the administration’s.

Under LaHood (a Republican) and Obama, there has been a distinct preference to invest in transit and rail as a way to bring new life to communities.

The administration has worked hard to understand the inter-relationships between transportation, land-use, housing, energy and the environment. There’s a growing understanding in public policy circles that transit helps spur economic development in pedestrian-oriented communities, and that ends up saving energy, improving the environment and contributing to the quality of life.

These are not new concepts among people who study cities, urban development and healthy communities.

But until the Obama administration, there had been a definite bias towards roads and automobiles. When the word transit was mentioned, it almost always was “bus rapid transit,” an approach that is appropriate in some communities. But it’s not one that contributes to compact, urban lifestyle where people are encouraged to use their feet, bikes or transit to get around.

The City of Atlanta gets it. The Connect Atlanta transportation plan is all about connectivity and promoting multiple modes to get around.

But transit has yet to be embraced by leaders in the state of Georgia. As it has been said repeatedly, Georgia hardly ever contributes operating funds for the 120 transit systems across the state. The one exception has been the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s X-press buses, and now those too are facing a significant operating shortfall.

The state has taken years, if not decades, to seriously consider commuter rail. And nearly $100 million in federal dollars could be lost if the state doesn’t advance with a commuter rail line between Atlanta and Griffin.

The message from LaHood couldn’t have been clearer. The City of Atlanta has a vision that coincides with the vision that exists in Washington, D.C. But the same can’t be said for the state.

As a result, Georgia continues to be turned down when applying for federal grants for roads and tollways as other states that have embraced transit and rail have received millions from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

That point really hit home because the Atlanta Streetcar won the largest grant of any that were awarded Wednesday in this round of TIGER funds. In all, about 75 communities ended up receiving a total of nearly $600 million.

What made Atlanta’s grant so attractive?

LaHood said the $47.6 million for a “modern streetcar system” will put “Atlanta in the vanguard of America’s streetcar renaissance.”

During the press conference, LaHood repeated his perception of Atlanta.

“Atlanta has its act together,” LaHood said. “Community leaders has said this is a way to think outside the box. And there’s no better way to do it than a streetcar program. Streetcars are coming back.”

Later he added that streetcars and high speed rail are investments in communities.

LaHood ended his comments with this quote: “This streetcar line will become an economic engine that will create long-lasting jobs.”

Imagine the possibilities if the State of Georgia could also get that message.

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.

12 replies
  1. Burroughston Broch says:

    According to the grant proposal, the streetcar will add 460 positions to MARTA’s payroll. The streetcar revenue will not support these positions. Be ready for more MARTA position and route cuts.Report

    Reply
  2. Where's the Rail? says:

    @Burroughston Broch
    Their application says… approximately 460 new jobs for operation of the streetcar over 20 years. 20 years being the key part there. The application calculates one new job as a one year term of a full time employee (FTE). So that means they will be hiring approximately 23 people a year (460/20=23) for this operation. When you factor in that there are 4 streetcars that will be servicing the route, with multiple operator shifts on each, maintenance workers, transit planners, and supervisors, 23 employees per year doesn’t sound too far stretched. The shift operators will be the majority of the hiring.Report

    Reply
  3. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Where’s the Rail?
    I think that you are confused. The number of people required to staff four streetcars is the same on Day 1 as it will be 20 years later. Do you think that MARTA will hire 23 people for Year 1, fire them at the end of Year 1, and then hire 23 new employees for Year 2? They will hire the full staff for the first day.
    I like streetcars but this is a boondoggle.Report

    Reply
  4. jim says:

    The saddest thing is that this expensive waste of money is cheered as an accomplishment by some “progressives”.
    “The Connect Atlanta transportation plan is all about connectivity and promoting multiple modes to get around.”

    Connectivity and multiple modes of transportation? I guess a goal of actually solving traffic problems would just be silly.Report

    Reply
  5. Mike says:

    Jim, what do you not understand? The worst traffic is on the Connector and in the suburbs – that is a METRO/state issue, not the city of Atlanta. This project is good for the CITY, period.

    If the rest of the metro area and the state of Georgia had it’s crap together, then maybe we could start solving our traffic issues. Until then, the city of Atlanta should not have to sit around and wait for everyone else nor should it do nothing and decline because the rest of the metro is too stupid to get it.

    This is NOT a waste of money. It will help boost Downtown Atlanta and make it competitive once again as well as increase businesses and give people more choices to get around IN THE CITY. It will probably increase MARTA rail ridership because a lot of destinations are “too far of a walk” for most people so they opt to drive instead. Soon they can get off MARTA and transfer to the streetcar to get around the major parts of Downtown.

    To reiterate, I’m not sure why this is so difficult for so many people. Our major traffic problems are a METRO issue, not the city of Atlanta and the city of Atlanta is not solely responsible for fixing them. The state and the rest of the metro needs to get on board and figure it out. If you’re angry, get mad at the suburban counties and the state as they are the ones holding us back!Report

    Reply
  6. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Mike.
    Mike, I think that you’ve drunk too much progressive kool-ade.

    The streetcar will slow traffic on downtown streets. It will not carry any more people than a bus. It will take longer to make a trip than a bus. It will cost more to operate than a bus. It will not be “greener” than a bus. These are the same problems that caused Atlanta’s streetcars to go out of business after WWII.

    The streetcar is a feel-good gimmick, not a solution.Report

    Reply
  7. Mike says:

    So what if it slows down cars? Downtown isn’t for cars – it’s for people! I’d rather see people walking around and more businesses open than dead streets and people driving through in their cars. It’s about getting people OUT OF THEIR CARS and taking transit downtown as well as around downtown (instead of driving!) It really isn’t a hard concept to understand…

    Streetcars went out of business because of the creation of the automobile and it’s new popularity, not because they didn’t work. Many cities around the country are building streetcars and their citizens are benefiting from them. Atlanta shouldn’t be left behind AGAIN because you can’t drive through downtown faster.

    Also, don’t most of you transit haters also hate downtown and the city of Atlanta? Why do you even care? And why are you driving around Downtown Atlanta if you live in the city? Walk, take the bus, take the train, or take the new streetcar!Report

    Reply
  8. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ Mike
    I thought that this was about transportation, not social policy. People go downtown for business, not to just walk around. Spend some time downtime and you can figure it out. That’s why few people are downtown at night – there’s no reason to be there and a streetcar won’t change it.

    The streetcars went out of business after WWII (40+ years after the first cars in Atlanta) and were replaced by the trackless trolleys. Part of the reason for the replacement was that trackless trolleys could better move with auto and truck traffic. The streetcars then were bound to a track and the new streetcars will do the same.

    As far as being a transit hater, I am actually a lover of reasonable, efficient public transport. I take MARTA to the airport, downtown and elsewhere when it works for me. When I travel to cities with real public transport, I use it exclusively. But this streetcar is not reasonable public transport – it is a boondoggle.Report

    Reply
  9. jim says:

    Mike,I don’t understand many things.

    I don’t understand why the federal government is 12 TRILLION dollars in debt but still handing out $46 million dollar checks for projects that don’t solve a problem.

    I don’t understand why people think a silly tourist gimmick that will fail as soon as the government subsidies run out is good for Atlanta.

    I don’t understand how someone can claim with a straight face that this streetcar, “will help boost Downtown Atlanta and make it competitive once again as well as increase businesses”.

    I don’t understand why Maria Saporta would criticize the state of Georgia for not building a train line to Griffin? (Griffin! Are you freaking kidding me?)

    Suffice it to say that I don’t understand most of the liberal transportation agenda, Mike, but those are a few things that come to mind.Report

    Reply
  10. perspective says:

    Burroughston –

    Just thought I’d throw this out, since you keep bringing up the argument that streetcars went out of business because of the popularity of the automobile. Streetcars, which were almost all run by private companies, went out of business only in part because of the popularity of the auto. A large (some say primary) contributing factor was their purchase and dismantling by corporate shells owned by the major oil companies and auto manufacturers.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_American_streetcar_scandal

    And Jim – people also argued the streetcars in Portland and Seattle were “silly tourist gimmicks”. But most of the naysayers stopped complaining when they saw the dramatic increase in property values (and therefore tax revenue) in the areas surrounding the trolley lines.Report

    Reply

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