February 2015: A streetcar leaves us wanting

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The first time I took the Atlanta Streetcar, on its third day of operation, I waited alone at the Peachtree Center stop across from the Ellis Hotel. It was raining, but the shelter kept me dry. The stop is about two blocks from our downtown office, and I wanted to check out for myself the project that took almost three years and $98 million to build. The passengers on my trip represented what will likely be the consistent demographic: tourists, an elderly couple with shopping bags, a pith-helmeted Downtown Ambassador. It took us 51 minutes to cover the 2.7-mile loop, including a 15-minute wait at the Centennial Park stop. There was no doubt that walking would have been faster.

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore
Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Photograph by Caroline C. Kilgore

Metro Atlanta is hurting for sufficient mass transit, so it feels almost churlish to complain about something that is precisely that, even if its scale is limited. But it was hard not to consider the streetcar against the larger backdrop. On the same day that the streetcar launched, state lawmakers released a report that in 23 succinct pages spelled out the—there’s no other way to put it—dire condition not just of our roads (Georgia in recent years has paved about 2 percent of its roads annually, putting us on a 50-year resurfacing cycle), but also of our long-term viability as a place where people will want to live when they’re faced with spending weeks of their lives each year stuck in traffic. A couple of the report’s observations:

  • Statewide, we’re running an annual budget gap of up to $1.5 billion merely to maintain the bridges and roads we already have.
  • To do what’s necessary to increase regional mobility, like expanding transit, we’ll need up to $2.9 billion more a year.

As anyone riding their brakes on the Georgia 400 parking lot every weekday—or willing but unable to switch to MARTA because the system’s reach is so limited—can tell you, the consequences are already here. But the report warns us to prepare for more: additional lost productivity, impeded supply chains, a 33 percent reduction in the number of Georgians who can get to their jobs in 45 minutes or less. And on and on.

What does any of this have to do with the streetcar? After all, half the funding for it came from the federal government, and the money was contingent on building the thing and that thing alone. I don’t see the streetcar as a boondoggle, as some have complained; Mayor Kasim Reed has touted the increased development around the streetcar route, and even if causation might be hard to demonstrate, the streetcar can only be a catalyst for more economic growth, especially around Auburn Avenue. To me, the question is one of priority: Riding the streetcar, as it lumbered through downtown and up Edgewood Avenue, I couldn’t help but equate it to a gorgeous dining room in a home that lacked a kitchen. At the inaugural ceremony, Central Atlanta Progress president A.J. Robinson seemed to anticipate grumblers like me when he said, “To those of you who may still have a slight doubt of the significance of the Atlanta streetcar, I say to you, frankly, ‘We did not build it for you.’” The streetcar, he explained, is intended to make the city more attractive in the competition for “future human capital.”

That’s great. But let’s not forget the present human capital, stuck in traffic.

This article originally appeared in our February 2015 issue.

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