It’s OK to be Sanguine About the Streetcar

Atlantans got some….rather sobering… numbers about the new Streetcar project in Atlanta. 

Let me start this by saying I am generally not a fan of the Streetcar. I think it can (and very well may) become a boondoggle. That said, some of the numbers are worth putting into context and there is a little glimmer of hope for the Streetcar.

The most troubling aspect is that the operations cost increased 52% to $4.8 million a year. It now costs over $5 per passenger to operate the Streetcar. This is not the first time costs for the Streetcar have gone up, and I would imagine, it is not the last. However, funding is coming in from a variety of avenues and, honestly, the extra $1.6 million needed for operations isn’t a huge sum of money for government projects. So at best, you can say it really isn’t that big a deal for operating costs to increase–hardly a ringing endorsement for the future.

But wait! Transportation projects of any kind lose money–tons of it. People want to pick and choose which ones they “care” about based on their own political biases. There’s literally nothing else to it. GDOT spends approximately $160 million per year on maintaining roads. That breaks down to about $1.3 million per year for the 123,431 miles of public roads in Georgia.

Ridership is also questionable. I’m a little uncertain what The AJC is saying here: “Six weeks into the Atlanta Streetcar’s first three months – that special period when it’s free to ride –102,000 people rode on the cars. The city’s target for the period was 124,800.” I’m not sure if the 124,8000 passengers is the goal for the six-week free period or three months. If the latter, then there’s no need yet to panic. If the former, it’s still not necessarily a reason to panic.

The Streetcar runs on a loop for tourists. The blueish-purpleish behemoth began running in the dead of winter when there’s no tourists and Atlantans have left for other climes. It stands to reason that ridership will increase when more people are here and more people need to move around.

Another reason not worry about ridership numbers yet is that there’s hardly any residential areas that are connected to the Streetcar loop. As Downtown/04w changes–and the Streetcar expands it’s tracks–the Streetcar will have more riders. Really, this is kind of the linchpin to the project’s future. If the Streetcar doesn’t go to people’s homes it won’t be a viable option. The Streetcar moves slowly and operates in bus lanes. There’s no reason to take it if you have to walk past buses or MARTA stops or anything else, really.

What scares me most about this report is that people will see this one piece of data, without considering its context and determine that public transportation is even more doomed making large-scale funding projects even more toxic than they are now. (Look at some of the dolts who get elected here in Georgia… things can get much worse before they get better).

I don’t believe the Streetcar is the answer to Atlanta’s traffic woes. I don’t even think it will be a significant piece of the puzzle. But we desperately need some solutions. Roads aren’t going to cut it. The only thing an increase in traffic capacity will bring is more traffic. Serious solutions include congestion pricing (which works) and more money for public transportation. Plus, do you really want to spend another $1,925 per year thanks to Atlanta’s terrible roads?

While I probably sound like a Streetcar apologist, let me be clear that I’m not. I ‘m barely a fan and am more fearful than optimistic. It probably would have been wiser to use the money being spent on the Streetcar for other public transportation projects. But we’ve got it now and it can play a part in Atlanta’s development and we should figure out ways to use it better rather than letting it wither on the vine.

21 comments

  1. Harry says:

    You might like to check the cost per passenger mile of streetcars vs. roads. 100:1? That’s all. Streetcars work in traditional habitats, but in places like Atlanta I’m starting to be convinced they’re a toy or gimmick.

  2. penguin says:

    Unfortunately, Atlanta didn’t have a whole lot of choice on what to use the money for, since it was federal grant money. I hope that given a choice, Atlanta would have done something that does actually address some some traffic concerns instead of exacerbating them (construction for the past two years have closed off streets, and now there’s a street car in the middle of traffic). It’s pretty amazing to me how many times I’ve heard people say can I just go around it? No. And please stop driving in Atlanta because you are not competent.

    The streetcar is an amusing spectacle but seems to offer very little for those of us who don’t drive. I walk faster. And the every time I consider waiting for a street car, it has the same problem as everything else in rush hour traffic: why on earth would I want to get into some vaulted trap in sit in traffic? An alternative mode of transportation, even if it doesn’t go anywhere, should at least avoid Atlanta traffic.

    I’m sure tourists will continue to use it. And I hope they’re going to start tourist passes at hotels and visitor centers. It seems convenient for hauling around the cites with kids. But, for some people who are impatiently awaiting for Atlanta to graduate into a real city with all (or even a plurality) accessible without traffic torture or five part commute, the street car is an utterly disappointing use of the city’s resources. This is particularly so when there has been no meaningful solutions offered for this. And even if they were discussed and accepted this year, it wouldn’t be reality for another five to ten years.

  3. androidguybill says:

    The streetcar was never designed to address traffic. Let me restate: the streetcar was never designed to address traffic. Second, the streetcar was never designed to “pay for itself.” Again: the streetcar was never designed to “pay for itself” directly with fare revenue.

    The sole purpose of the streetcar was to drive economic development. I repeat: the sole purpose of the streetcar was to drive economic development, and specifically economic development in areas of the city that have been either stagnant or in decline for decades . It wasn’t even a project for tourists (or millennials). It was a “please locate your new condo highrise project or office building project here instead of in Buckhead/north Atlanta or in the suburbs” project. That was why the feds wanted the project to begin with: infrastructure projects to attract and retain businesses and residents to the city proper is a core part of the strategy to turn Georgia purple by getting people who get their degrees from places like Emory, Agnes Scott, Georgia State and Georgia Tech to stick around instead of hightailing it to the northeast or west coast, and also getting people from the northeast or west coast to move to Atlanta. Atlanta is not the only urban area that the Obama administration has targeted for projects like this: Tuscon (in Arizona, another red state that the Democrats think that they can turn purple) got a streetcar too, for example.

    And as an economic development project the streetcar is already very successful. Let me restate. As an economic development project the streetcar is already very successful. How successful, you might ask? It has played a vital role in attracting $700 million in new development. Some context? That is $700 million in development in return for a project that only cost $70 million to build, with most of that $70 million being paid by the feds. And let me put this in context. This is $700 million in development in the middle of a horrible recession that slowed development projects to a near standstill AND in areas of Atlanta saw no benefit from and in some cases even saw economic and population declines during the economic booms of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/05/13/streetcars-set-to-roll-in-atlanta-other-cities/8737085/

    And this is just phase one. Phase II will be to join the streetcar to the other (much-maligned by many OTPers and GOPers) large – and largely successful – economic development project: the Beltline. The Beltline is driving development (and population growth) also, and when the two join, that will pretty much allow the city’s two big economic development projects to merge, or at the very least have a lot of synergy in terms of marketing it to investors and residents.

    So the ridership numbers is not the way to measure its impact. Instead, go along the streetcar route and look at all the new buildings – and new taxpaying city residents – in neighborhoods that most folks wouldn’t have dared set foot in during broad daylight, let alone hung around after dark, to see its actual intentions and impact, which A) never was to get cars off the road and B) never was to ferry tourists to the College Football Hall of Fame and World of Coke.

    • penguin says:

      But if no one rides it AND it doesn’t address traffic concerns, won’t it stop driving economic development? It drives development because it’s supposed to help those things and make Atlanta better not just by its mere existence right?

      • androidguybill says:

        @penguin:

        ” It drives development because it’s supposed to help those things and make Atlanta better not just by its mere existence right?”

        No. It actually, literally does drive development because of its mere existence. It is something that gives a person or a business a reason to choose one piece of land over another. That is all. Nothing else. It is similar to how several businesses are already lining up to relocate to the Cumberland CID because of the Braves stadium there. I am not talking about restaurants and hotels that would actually potentially make money off people attending the games, but folks looking to put corporate regional and branch offices there. Similar to how folks would throw up all sorts of development near malls – back when we actually used to build malls that is – that had nothing to do with wanting to be closer to a place to shop. Instead, new infrastructure drives development. Why? I have no idea beyond a simple guess that new infrastructure just gives a person a reason to choose a patch of land in place A over that same patch of land in place B. For anything more than that, you would have to talk to someone who has a background in real estate, urban planning, economics etc. to find out. All I know is that I live near the streetcar (and the Beltline) and see a lot of new activity in areas that have been cratering in on themselves at least since the Maynard Jackson election triggered the white flight, and possibly even before then. Whether this economic development and population growth is sustained, or whether all those condo high rises sit empty and the new businesses either fail or relocate to Forsyth I can’t say … check back in 10 years and we will see. All I can tell you is what is happening now, including the fact that Atlanta will no longer be majority black by the next mayoral election, and it may not even be majority black now.

        “But if no one rides it AND it doesn’t address traffic concerns, won’t it stop driving economic development?”

        I will address that question with a question: how does one address traffic concerns in a dense urban area that is already (mostly) well serviced by public transportation? Build more roads? Sure … where? Add lanes to existing roads? Good luck with that. More bus routes and more train stations? If you are talking north Fulton, fine, but is that needed downtown? Or even in Buckhead and north Atlanta? That’s my point.

        When people say “Atlanta has a traffic problem” what they really mean is “the metro Atlanta suburbs – and yes certain places in north Atlanta and north Fulton I guess – have a traffic problem.” So … what is it that the city of Atlanta can do (or even should do if they could) to make things easier on folks who live in Cobb and are trying to get to Gwinnett? Or who live in Cobb but work downtown or vice versa? (Or Alpharetta, Sandy Springs etc. for that matter)? The answer: not a whole lot. Those folks will have to help themselves by electing people who will either join (or support properly funding and expanding) MARTA or build their own equivalent.

        Basically, there isn’t a whole lot that urban areas can do to reduce traffic. (Especially if those urban areas are surrounded by 5 million people who despite the idea of living in it but still see the need to go into the urban area to work, go to school, shop, etc.) But there is plenty that urban areas can do to make their cities more attractive to people who want to live and invest there, and include parks, bike trails, football stadiums and yes streetcars.

        • penguin says:

          it’s crazy to say that its mere existence drives economic development. Investors/business people aren’t idiots. (“Shiny streetcar…must buy things near it!”) They invest in something because it promises to bring gains. The streetcar would drive development by bringing something — more people, other businesses relocating, more residents, etc. It’s impossible to tell if that’s the street car or other factors that are driving the development. I agree with Ed, that development will continue, but it’s not because of the street car.

          If the streetcar was more accessible to people who weren’t already downtown, and more convenient for people who were, then it would bring more customers, residents, etc. and be a better investment. And the Cobb County Braves seem to be an example. People are relocating there and opening up restaurants because the Braves say people are going to come. If everyone stops going to Braves games, just like if no one rides the street car, the investments will leave.

          And how do urban areas fix traffic? Um, no not lane expansion–viable means of alternative transportation. MARTA doesn’t take you anywhere in Downtown. Hence the Streetcar’s existence. Unfortunately, the Streetcar isn’t much of a viable alternative to anyone which is why it such a disappointment. Also, Atlanta doesn’t have a traffic problem? It’s only the suburbs? Points of reference: 1) The Downtown Connector; 2) Increased travel time on the streetcar route during rush hour.

      • novicegirl says:

        I’ve heard this mantra repeated before, “the streetcar was not intended to be a transportation solution,” and find that to be a really odd explanation. It’s going to take more to convince me that the prospect of a really large and expensive model train caused the gentrification movement in Atlanta to occur years before the first bit of track had been laid.

        I think the redevelopment / gentrification has more to do with a longterm trend, which experienced a hiccup during the real estate meltdown, of redevelopment occurring within the City. This has been occurring all over Atlanta, with or without, or perhaps in spite of, the streetcar and beltline walking path.

        I can think of many areas, from the Old Fourth Ward to East Atlanta, that have been going through huge changes, without access to the streetcar.

    • Ed says:

      The development in Downtown/04w was happening well before the Streetcar was an idea. Sorry, but at best it can augment already-existing growth.

      • androidguybill says:

        “well before the Streetcar was an idea”

        Again, seeing that I live there … I disagree. Just a few years ago, there was nothing going on. No new construction, no new residents, nothing. You can make the case that the new development just happened to coincide with the streetcar (which has been planned and promoted since at least 2010 and possibly 2009) but not that it preceded it. If you have evidence of all this economic activity downtown and in the fourth ward in 2007/2008, please provide it.

        • Ed says:

          “I disagree.”

          OK, well you’re wrong. I’ve been, living, working and playing there for over a decade.

          You can also look at average rent and increase in property values, too.

  4. smvaughn says:

    “And this is just phase one. Phase II will be to join the streetcar to the other (much-maligned by many OTPers and GOPers) large – and largely successful – economic development project: the Beltline.”

    IMO, whether the streetcar is a success or a failure depends 100% on whether this (and the larger beltline transport vision) come to fruition.

    • androidguybill says:

      That is if you can somehow view $700 million return ALREADY on a $70 million investment (most of which was paid for by the feds) as being a failure.

  5. DunwoodyModerate says:

    As someone who has worked downtown for almost a decade, I really want to like the streetcar but I just dont see how it is going to be a success for the simple reason that it only goes in one direction and runs as a circulator. This makes it ridiculously inconvenient for the casual rider. Just a few examples- most of the “tourists” who we expect to use the streetcar would likely get on at Peachtree Center since thats the stop nearest the large convention hotels. That makes them an easy 2 stops away from Centennial Park and the museums. Great! What is not great and almost comical is that for those same tourists to get back to Peachtree Center they have to go around the loop for 10 stops. no one is going to do that or certainly not do it more than once.

    I face the same problem as a downtown worker. I would love to break up the lunch routine and take the streetcar down to any of the restaurants down around GA State’s campus or have popped up along Edgewood ave that are too far a walk from Peachtree Center especially once it gets hot out. What I dont have time to do is then sit on the streetcar and make the loop all the way back around to Peachtree Center.

    If it ran it both directions this would be a useful mode of transit; as it stands now its really just a waste.

    • Harry says:

      But…the poster said the streetcar purpose is not to be used, but to drive development because of its existence.

    • Ghost of William F. Buckley says:

      Until this moment I did not realize the Streetcar ran in only one direction – In a circle. Good grief, until now I was willing to give this thing some more time to prove itself.

      I think that a one way ride is going to become an official boon doggle. “Your Honor, you are being hornswaggled!”

        • Ghost of William F. Buckley says:

          As DunMod said, the Peachtree Center lunch crowd probably can’t take the time to visit Edgewood Ave, via Olympic Park, then walk a block, after lunch to get back.

          Loop, circle, route, it goes one way! But hey, it is a start so let’s give it some time. We all thought the pay lanes were going to signal the end of days, and they are working out pretty well.

  6. Dave Bearse says:

    The city could license a carousel at the King Center to complement Skyview ferris wheel, and market the streetcar as the amusement ride that it is that connects amusement rides.

  7. WeymanCWannamakerJr says:

    C’mon people, look at the potential for cleaning up the downtown streets. A bottle of 2 Buck Chuck, a dollar for the trolley, and every wino can now ride around in air conditioned comfort. We will just be reversing past trends and working stiffs can walk around without being accosted while the bums ride around.

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