The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a critical story last week about the city’s streetcar — and Mayor Kasim Reed wasn’t too happy about it. The statement his spokesperson issued in response draws on lingering political divides between Atlanta and its wealthier (and whiter) suburbs to the north.
“The AJC’s David Wickert does not provide a fair reading or an objective analysis,” the statement reads. “Rather, he takes an inherently anti-transit position designed for the paper’s North Metro readership, not for readers in Atlanta. He does so at the expense of truth, context and objectivity.”
So what, exactly, has the mayor’s office so ruffled? The AJC piece concerns a year-old audit in which state regulators identified dozens of problems with the streetcar, which took its inaugural trip in December 2014. The Georgia Department of Transportation cited staffing issues and lax security and maintained that accidents were not properly investigated or reported, according to the paper. The agency threatened to shut it down.
Roughly a year later, “the city has resolved fewer than one-third of those flaws,” according to the recent (and mayor contested) AJC story.
“And that isn’t the only headache for the troubled streetcar, envisioned as a centerpiece of Atlanta’s revitalization,” according to the paper. “Ridership fell nearly 60 percent last year after Atlanta began charging $1 to ride, federal statistics show. And the city estimates a third to a half of passengers still don’t bother to pay.”
The piece does go on to say that state regulators are now “pleased with Atlanta’s recent progress.”
“GDOT has accepted Atlanta’s plans to fix all of the outstanding issues raised in the audit,” the article states. “That’s a big change from last spring … .”
And that’s one of the main complaints from Reed’s office: That a year later, they’re on track — but the story isn’t framed that way.
“Sunday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution headline on the Atlanta Streetcar should have read ‘State officials pleased with Streetcar progress,’” read the statement from Reed’s office. “That’s the first piece of new information the story shares, but readers don’t see it until the seventh paragraph … .”
The AJC has since published Reed’s statement along with copies of the original GDOT audit and a more recent report, telling readers to “decide for yourself whether the newspaper’s articles were fair and accurate.”
Rail in the Atlanta metro is a highly charged issue — and its lack of support outside the city core has crippled the system in the past. Next City has previously covered the racist history of why the MARTA train has been unable to expand to the northern suburbs in the past. And now, a state bill could hobble any future plans to expand west.
The suburbs’ historic reluctance toward transit was nowhere to be found in Atlanta’s core last November, however, when voters approved measures to fund MARTA and the Atlanta BeltLine rail and trail corridor. And attitudes outside the city center are changing, too, albeit slowly.
But the city/suburb divide isn’t a completely accurate way to see attitudes about the streetcar, either. Critics tend to see streetcars as expensive political legacy makers — when something like improving bus service or building out effective bus rapid transit would arguably be cheaper and just as effective, as Next City has previously covered.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.