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Atlanta Streetcar Faces Stiff Competition For Grant Funding

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A streetcar expansion could get left behind, again. Then what?

There are a lot of questions still hanging over the Atlanta Streetcar, not the least of which is, "How do we fund this damn thing?" According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced this week that $500 million will be made available in the 2016 round of TIGER discretionary grants. Last year, the streetcar was among many projects that were left out of the coveted federal funding pool, which led to an internal recalibration with regard to its expansion timetable. And now that the application doors are open again, city officials seem cautious about jumping in to the process.

In recent months, streetcar officials have received plenty of criticism, though the most scathing came from a review by the Georgia Department of Transportation in January. Fortunately the program has made some improvements, beefing up maintenance staff, adding security, and clearing up some operational gray areas. But problems of depressed ridership and viability are still in play. Back in October, when the city missed out on the most recent round of grants, Conor Sen, a local investment manager, tweeted: "Unpopular for elected officials to say, so I’ll say it — we didn’t deserve it... The streetcar has governance issues."

Some have suggested that operation of the streetcar should be turned over to MARTA since they've had such a huge operational turnaround in the last few years. That idea even sparked legislation by state Senator Vincent Fort. Whether that shift makes more or less sense, now, in the wake of a failed attempt at bringing up rail expansion in the state legislature is unclear. Either way, Mayor Kasim Reed has already said such a move has "no chance of ever becoming law."

Locally, the TIGER program has already chipped in $47.6 million for the Atlanta Streetcar. When asked about the most recent failure to secure funding, Reed told the AJC, "How many do you want me to win? There have been five rounds of TIGER and we’ve won two. And in the two rounds that we won, we got the largest grants."

And in terms of competition for this year's TIGER cash, the AJC offers this troubling bit of info:

According to U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, demand for this round of TIGER is “likely to be overwhelming and the competition steep.” To illustrate the point, the amount sought by local governments last year was 29 times higher than the amount available.