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Amidst Super Bowl hoopla, local, national media spotlight streetcar shortcomings

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Fortunately, MARTA’s heavy rail network impressed

A picture of the streetcar covered in a Super Bowl wrap
An example of the streetcar system’s specialized attire for Super Bowl LIII.

During last weekend’s Super Bowl LIII in downtown, the reality that cars remain king in Atlanta was fully on display.

Case in point: The Atlanta Streetcar became both victim of congestion and national laughingstock.

A Cincinnati Enquirer reporter in town for the Big Game, for example, scoffed when he noticed the streetcars struggling without their own dedicated lanes.

“I kept seeing the streetcars in traffic and laughing at it, saying, ‘This is kind of ridiculous,’” he said on The Enquirer’s That’s So Cincinnati podcast, noting that the Ohio city’s light rail system suffers from similar ailments.

The system that cost Atlanta nearly $100 million to build and snakes through downtown and the Sweet Auburn district is currently comprised of just one 2.7-mile circuit. It was so bogged down by vehicle and pedestrian (hey, that’s a plus, right?) traffic that MARTA opted to suspend the service the Saturday before the Super Bowl.

That move, of course, caught the ire of media outlets near and far.

An engineer writing for national urbanist publication Strong Towns, knocking the City of Atlanta for borrowing and spending so much money to build a subpar system, reminded readers the State of Georgia threatened to shut down the streetcar in 2016.

And the Saturday closure sent a message that cars still take precedent over mass transit.

This, of course, all comes after MARTA ensured people the streetcar would keep chugging during Super Bowl weekend—not closing operations as it did on New Years Eve and during the College Football National Championship.

Many transit advocates argued on social media that downtown roads should have been closed to allow pedestrians and streetcars to flow freely.

Thankfully, the streetcar continued running throughout Super Sunday, although ridership—as usual—was lacking, and automobile traffic again slowed the journey.

Some would argue that plans to expand the city’s light rail network by way of the More MARTA program could make the initial $98 million investment in the streetcar system worthwhile.

But mapping out those plans—and the funding for them—must be done carefully, said Strong Towns writer and founder Charles Marohn:

I’m not going to definitively say that Atlanta’s streetcar is an irredeemable undertaking. I’m not even going to argue that expanding the system is guaranteed to be a boondoggle. What I am going to say is that the city of Atlanta is not serious about their transit investments. It’s a skin-in-the-game problem, a byproduct of how the projects were funded.

In MARTA’s defense, its heavy rail system did a bang-up job of ferrying hundreds of thousands people to and from Mercedes-Benz Stadium and elsewhere downtown during Super Bowl weekend.