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.