Will voters decide to double down on the Atlanta Streetcar?

Two tax referendums on November ballots have given streetcar backers renewed hope
Atlanta Streetcar

Illustration by Daniel Downey

It’s afternoon rush hour on a cloudy August day at the Atlanta Streetcar’s Edgewood and Hilliard stop, and a guy in a green cap and white T-shirt who smells like a tavern is sharing his views on streetcar patronage. In return, he asks for—and receives—the dollar I was planning to use for my inaugural ride. As the next car pulls up, he says somberly, “They wanted to shut it down. It ain’t making a hell of a lot of money, I’ll tell you that.”

Over the next hour, this 80-foot-long, impeccably clean, Duke-blue modern trolley car will complete the 2.7-mile downtown loop twice. Its windows frame a landscape that metaphorically reflects the streetcar’s rocky run: signs of promise such as new retailers and construction cranes interrupted by harsh realities, such as rows of men sleeping under an overpass. In that time, only a dozen riders get on board. Among them is northwest Atlanta resident Agatha McHenry, who’s riding the streetcar to her 10-year-old son’s appointments at a downtown clinic. “It’s just good to have,” she says. “I’d like to see more people riding it. They’ll come.”

As they have since the 12-stop loop was announced in 2010, streetcar backers still share McHenry’s optimism, and two tax referendums on November ballots have given them renewed hope.

Georgia legislators granted permission this year for MARTA and city officials to ask Atlanta voters to approve a long-term, half-cent sales tax hike, which would raise $2.5 billion over the next four decades for new train stations, light rail on the Atlanta BeltLine, and expansion of streetcar service. A second sales tax increase, a .4 percent T-SPLOST proposal lasting up to five years, would fund new sidewalks, bike lanes, parks, and other transit-related improvements. If passed, both measures would bump Atlanta’s sales tax to 8.9 percent, cracking the top 10 highest rates among major American cities. But as supporters are quick to point out, the resources Atlanta would be channeling toward transportation—in combination with the $250 million Renew Atlanta infrastructure bond that voters approved last year—would be unparalleled.

“This is a generational opportunity, on both the transit and nontransit side,” says Tom Weyandt, transportation consultant to Mayor Kasim Reed.

Streetcar boosters believe the referendums, if approved, could shift the conversation away from its early troubles. When the first trolley rolled out in December 2014, the project was already more than a year and a half behind schedule, and construction costs had ballooned from an estimated $69 million to more than $98 million, with federal grants covering less than half the price tag.

A barrage of negative headlines plagued the system in its first 18 months. Streetcars were hit by automobiles and tagged with graffiti. Trolley drivers didn’t show up for work. There were poor safety audits, equipment failures, and frequent management turnover. And when the system implemented a $1 fare this past January, ridership plunged by more than 50 percent. While Weyandt argues that new transit systems aren’t expected to be profitable, the Atlanta Streetcar cost $4.8 million to operate in the 2016 fiscal year. As of July, the system had collected just $123,000 in revenue in the first seven months of 2016.

Councilwoman Felicia Moore is among those who question the streetcar’s long-term viability. “It’s not that I don’t think those types of transit options are good, [but] from the very beginning I’ve just been skeptical of the projected numbers,” she says. “As time has gone on, those numbers have not proven to be true.”

That’s not to say the streetcar hasn’t had a positive impact. Pam Joiner, general manager for Sweet Auburn Curb Market, has seen four new tenants open since the streetcar began rolling by, supplying a noticeable uptick in visitors from downtown hotels. Developer Gene Kansas, who converted the historic Atlanta Daily World building into apartments and retail and has two more projects in the offing, says the streetcar brings a favorable dynamic to the district. Combined with Georgia State University’s nearby student and staff populations, Kansas says the streetcar has lent him a sufficient “comfort level” to proceed with deals.

Despite the setbacks, the city council gave the system a vote of confidence last December by approving a master plan to build 50 miles of streetcar lines—five crosstown routes, each connecting with the BeltLine and MARTA—all over the city at a projected cost of more than $4 billion. The plan is required for major projects seeking Federal Transit Administration funding; it’s also meant to serve as the framework for the use of future sales tax revenue.

From the T-SPLOST, $66 million would be allocated to buy BeltLine right-of-way around the entire 22-mile loop, where light rail is planned to go. Money for construction and operation of streetcar extensions would come from the MARTA tax proposal—cash that Weyandt says could be matched with crucial federal funds. If both taxes are adopted, he says, engineering and environmental studies and community outreach efforts would begin immediately. Next would be roughly two years of construction, most likely to extend the streetcar line east to connect with the BeltLine.

A.J. Robinson, president of the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District Central Atlanta Progress, a nonprofit that promotes downtown
development, has no illusions the system will win over every naysayer. “We’re in a long-term competition for capital to make our city—and particularly our urban core—more livable, and in order to do that we’ve got to invest in technology like the streetcar, like fixing up our sidewalks, like the BeltLine and parks,” Robinson says. “Having gotten through the first phase of the project, and getting it built, I think we’re in great shape right now.”

Vital stats
Miles round-trip on the streetcar’s loop

minutes for one round-trip

projected cost for the streetcar

Actual total cost for the streetcar

Fiscal year 2016 operating costs

revenue from the first half of 2016

projected cost for a transit overhaul, including five new streetcar routes

This article originally appeared in our November 2016 issue.