Can a New Streetcar Save Atlanta’s MARTA?

Will a new streetcar route in Atlanta be the magical shot of adrenaline for an all-but-defeated transit system? As an Atlanta native, Mary Jones says that the outlook does not look good. Still, it’s a start.

A MARTA train. Flickr user Josh Hallett

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The City of Atlanta recently received a $47 million grant from the federal government to install a streetcar network in its downtown area. Construction will begin in 2012 with service to begin sometime the following year. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA)-run line will transport riders between the Midtown and Downtown areas and will connect some of Atlanta’s most popular attractions, including the King Center, CNN and the Coca-Cola museum. Proponents of the project say it will create 930 jobs during construction and an additional 5,000 following the start of service. City representatives hope this new venture will refresh downtown transit, reconnect neighborhoods and stimulate growth along a route that has fallen into disrepair. The new streetcar also comes as a welcome announcement amidst reports of huge MARTA cutbacks. But will the new streetcar route be the magical shot of adrenaline for an all-but-defeated transit system? As an Atlanta native, I can say that the outlook does not look good. Still, it’s a start.

MARTA began service in 1979 and grew into a city-wide system over the next 20 years as it added routes and rail lines. It now serves close to 500,000 passengers per day. Its rail system runs over 47.6 miles of track above and underground primarily through the city of Atlanta and surrounding Fulton and Dekalb counties. The rail’s four service lines run roughly north to south and east to west among 38 stations. MARTA’s bus service includes 554 vehicles running 92 routes that intersect the rail line. The prospective 2.6-mile streetcar system would run via overhead cables on its own track through the downtown area and will accept the Breeze Card, part of MARTA’s fare payment system, already in use with the bus and rail.

From its beginning, however, much of MARTA’s growth has been hindered by the relentless resistance of surrounding counties and the state government to support the system. MARTA is the largest transit system in the country with an almost complete lack of state or regional funding — perhaps its biggest problem. Plans for expansion and improvements over the years have been scrapped again and again because of lack of funds. Attempts to include neighboring Cobb, Gwinnett, and Clayton counties in the MARTA service area have been unsuccessful for close to 40 years, due in large part to suburban residents who do not want a city transit system in their neighborhoods, fearing crime and other unwanted effects, and therefore pay no taxes to support it. Many lawmakers and community leaders feel there is a racial motivation behind this sentiment, since MARTA primarily serves African-Americans.

Today, due to a decrease in the limited consumer tax revenue that funds it, MARTA faces compounded financial trouble year after year. In 2009, to much public outcry, the agency even entertained the notion of suspending one day of service a week to save money. The latest wave of cutbacks implemented in September cut 40 bus routes and curtailed rail service hours, meaning commuters can expect slower service. In addition, 400 positions will be eliminated. Though these measures are meant to save money they are likely to decrease ridership.

Even with a new streetcar it seems unlikely that MARTA will easily shed the reputation it has developed over the years for offering slow service and being a haven for the homeless and other social undesirables. Yet with help from the federal grant the city should at least be able to spark interest in public transit in the downtown area. People may not be as reluctant to ride the streetcar and even tourists might consider it a welcome option. Perhaps this feeling could transfer to the other modes of transportation. Regardless of the possibilities created by this new initiative, it is obvious that mismanagement by MARTA and decades-old racial and class divisions in the government and the community have become immovable road blocks to growth and improvement of public transportation in the area and directly contribute to substandard mobility for residents and the record high traffic and pollution levels in a city where most, myself included, opt to drive. MARTA will continue to struggle against itself without state or regional support and people will continue to drive their cars without viable options for alternative modes of transportation.

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Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationtransit agenciestrainsatlantastreetcars

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