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For Atlanta Streetcar, pessimism still abounds, though hope lives

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Report: Other U.S. cities view Atlanta’s system as what not to do

The Atlanta Streetcar passes through downtown Atlanta in 2015.
Atlanta Streetcar system: a cautionary tale?
Curbed Atlanta

Just when it seemed like the Atlanta Streetcar had turned a corner, figuratively speaking, a busload of pessimism has parked on the tracks.

Barely two years old, the nascent transit system had seemed to put headline-grabbing blunders and questionable decisions—involving car wrecks, staff shortages, untrained workers, obscenely long wait times, and that threat of a state government-led shutdown—behind it.

Instead, rosier streetcar news of late has focused on the potential of T-SPLOST funding and inventive new ways that streetcar leaders are convincing people to ride: Pokémon streetcar safaris, free rides on select days, and streetcar-led bar crawls celebrating Mardi Gras (this week) and St. Patrick’s Day (March 11).

But now, a largely unflattering WABE report this week could be the latest bitter pill for the streetcar system to swallow.

WABE offers proof that other U.S. cities (especially Washington D.C.) with streetcar services are pointing to Atlanta as a cautionary tale. After watching Atlanta Streetcar ridership plummet by almost 50 percent when $1 rides were implemented last year, the head of D.C.’s transportation said rides will remain free there for next four years.

On the flip-side, Portland’s growing, 16-mile streetcar system has recently doubled fares to $2, and ridership has only grown. How so? As one leader told WABE: “For us, it's not really about trying to trick people into riding the streetcar because it's free. We're relying on the fact that we built a system that functions and works for people and there's a cost for that."

But the most stinging input in the piece comes from a local source: Joseph Hacker, a Georgia State University public management and policy professor, compared ATL’s streetcar service to “sticky black molasses,” in that, “I can walk to those places faster than the streetcar ... I don't know how they justified getting the money for it."

GSU students were supposed to be a huge streetcar ridership component, but Hacker said they don’t often ride it, because it needs greater connectivity and a surrounding environment that’s denser.

On the brighter side, Atlanta officials pointed (as usual) to $1.5 billion in new investment that’s occurred within a five-minute walk of the streetcar since it was announced, and they said ridership figures are in line with projections, with increases expected as the mobile payment app gains popularity. Still, one official told WABE, about half of streetcar riders don’t pay the fee.

Speaking of funding, the voter-approved half-penny MARTA sales tax—which could generate $2.5 billion for transit expansion over the next four decades—kicked in this week.

That cash, officials have said, could bring the streetcar to the Beltline and many other places Atlantans want to go.

Georgia State University

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