Since news broke in 2010 that Atlanta would reintroduce streetcars, the initiative has driven a wedge between supporters who see it as the first segment of a future transit network, and others who decry it as an expensive toy. Local editorial writer Nick Stephens was moved by the streetcar's opening ceremony a few days after Christmas, though he's struggling to fully embrace the project's virtues. In a Letter to the Editor, he writes:
"About two-thirds of the way through his remarks at the Atlanta Streetcar opening celebration, A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, intensified his tone: "To those who doubt the value of this project, well frankly, we didn't build it for you."
If anyone in the audience missed Robinson's slight, it likely didn't last. Next, MC Ryan Cameron, longtime V-103 DJ, resumed his place at the podium. "'We didn't build this for you!'" shouted Cameron, cracking a smile and pausing, with arms outstretched to the crowd of a few hundred. An uncomfortable chuckle rose from the audience. "Next time tell 'em how you really feel, A.J.!" Cameron turned to his left, acknowledging Robinson, who looked out serenely over the gathering.
Though it's doubtful that many of the people who have questioned the wisdom of building Atlanta's first streetcar in 65 years would attend the celebration of its initial run, Robinson's message was clear: haters be damned.
From a national and international perspective, Atlanta needs something tangible to show where our thinking on public transit is concerned, and we've got it now.
Robinson's address leaned heavily on a rhetoric of competition, specifically Atlanta's competition against other aspirant cities. Keith Parker, MARTA's CEO, echoed the keeping-up-with-the-Jones' sentiment: "The Denvers, the Seattles, even the Clevelands, these cities are now making public transit investments that make them competitive." But what brings these investments a competitive edge to their respective cities? The exact intent and purpose of new public transit projects is an issue that was left decidedly more vague throughout the gamut of celebratory speeches offered on opening day.
For his part, Mayor Reed proudly spouted off a variety of statistics including the 45 million annual "tourists and visitors" (do suburbanites in for the weekend count as tourists … or visitors?) who find themselves in downtown, and who can now use the 2.7-mile loop to peruse out range of tourist offerings: from the new College Football Hall of Fame and National Center for Civil and Human Rights, to the King Center. And the mayor made repeated mention of an influx of business development that has already started along the route, with no specific ventures to note however. He graciously thanked many who made the project possible, including the federal partners who provided a bulk of the funding, and the Congressmen who initially sponsored it: Representatives John Lewis and Hank Johnson, who were both notably absent.
Those weren't the only notable absences.
There was no mention by any speaker of Georgia State University or its students, or any of downtown's other current occupants, or the seniors in the high rise at Borders Street and Auburn Avenue. The residents closest to the streetcar seemed furthest from the minds of those singing its praises. No kind apology was offered for their enduring months of construction noise and inconvenience, no invitation to enjoy its use, barring Cameron's ill-advised but oft-repeated slogan, "Remember y'all, it's just like layaway: free for 90 days!" But overall, throughout the proceedings, an excited buzz permeated the crowd, and eventually the confetti was shot, the cheers went up, and a small mob rushed to board the inaugural trip.
A little after 5 p.m. I returned downtown to see how things were going in full-blown operation. The line was long at the Centennial Park stop and a streetcar arrived just as I did. Not seeing a convenient place to leave my bike, I headed past the Tabernacle to the next stop. Only a few people occupied the platform, but in the minute we waited for the streetcar a typical scene unfolded: An apparent regular to the area approached a couple of tourist women and engaged in sporadic small talk. Eventually the local woman mumbled, "Can I get some change for something to eat?"
"Excuse me?" one of the women asked, concerned.
"Can I get some money?"
"I don't have any money," the woman responded, after a conspicuous pause. Within moments a separate woman was rummaging through her purse for some small offering as the panhandler moved down the platform and the shining streetcar pulled up. The doors opened and we boarded a packed car. Fifty-nine minutes passed before we returned to the same platform.
In typically idiosyncratic Atlanta style, the opening celebrations earlier in the day had commenced with an extensive dedication led by the Auburn Avenue Coalition, a consortium of eight churches along the streetcar route in Old Fourth Ward and nestling up to downtown. Pastor after unsmiling pastor took the microphone to offer their lines of prayer: "We present the Atlanta streetcar meekly…" "We dedicate the streetcar to the praise of almighty God…" "Oh God, we beseech you to accept the Atlanta Streetcar as a token of our love for you." It was not until the final pastor spoke that the already ponderous beginning to a public celebration took a surreally ironic turn; quoting Dr. King, he stated, "[Remind] us that we are tied in a single garment of destiny, caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality, what affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
It is far too early to judge either the direct or indirect affects of the Atlanta Streetcar, but the words and omissions of those behind the project suggested a distinctly uncertain hope. In fact, Reed, Parker and Robinson all respectively declared some variation on the phrase, "This is not a project for today, but for the future."
Public transit is necessary and should always be encouraged, because of its efficiency, its communal benefit and because, perhaps more than any other public service besides water, it serves its users equally, regardless of wealth or other factors. But in a city that desperately needs more public transit, a city near the bottom nationally for upward mobility, where babies born poor have the smallest chance to escape poverty, it's hard to believe in a project that helps so seemingly few of its own. I'd like to believe in public transit in every form, but not as a ploy merely to appease skittish tourists and attract wary developers.
And so, as my hour-long loop drew on, the bright winter sun gone, and the street signs of Atlanta's urban core slipping by through heavily tinted windows, Piedmont … Auburn … Peachtree, it seemed that Robinson's words may never fully reach their intended target; that they instead had soared over the heads of those in front and dispersed over Woodruff Park, de facto center of Atlanta's recent social justice protests, echoing off the buildings and scattering down the streets of an equivocal city."
— Nick Stephens
· It's Official: Atlanta Has a Streetcar! Photos From the First Day [Curbed Atlanta]