Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed had a message for critics of Atlanta’s troubled streetcar on the eve of a deadline that could lead to the transit system’s shutdown: stay calm and “take the long view.”
Comparing the system's long-term impact to sweeping projects like the construction of Ga. 400, Reed said Monday he was confident the system would be seen as the foundation of a bustling new transit line in the heart of the city.
His comments came as the city and MARTA face a Tuesday deadline to address a slew of problems with the troubled streetcar system uncovered in recent audits - and renewed threats to shut it down if those plans don't measure up. The city turned in its plans late Monday, a day ahead of the deadline.
"The streetcar is always a long-term play. The streetcar is always a linchpin," said Reed. "It’s part of a line. It’s not a train to nowhere, it’s a train for future lines. And you’re going to see some pretty big announcements that’s going to push back on the notion of a streetcar that’s going nowhere."
Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Russell McMurry last month threatened to shut down streetcar operations if the city and MARTA fail to address 60 problems ranging from maintenance procedures to inadequate staffing. City officials have submitted plans to fix 41 of the problems and initially asked for more time to handle the rest.
Gov. Nathan Deal said Monday that the state stepped in because, if not, federal transportation officials might intervene.
"I feel confident that we will work out the details," said Deal. "I just didn’t want the federal government threatening to cut off Georgia’s transportation project."
At an editorial board meeting last week, MARTA chief executive Keith Parker said he's confident that the fixes will instill "more confidence" in the system, and said Atlanta is "making all the right choices" in laying out a future expansion of the streetcar.
The city last week voted to approve a referendum that would hike the city's sales tax by a half-penny to raise $2.5 billion for transit. Along with fueling an expansion of MARTA's heavy rail network, it could also fund an extension of the streetcar up the Atlanta Beltline.
MARTA board chair Robbie Ashe said the transit agency also learned another important lesson from the streetcar's struggles. Expect the next round of plans to include a separate transit-only lane for the blue cars.
"Dedicated right of ways are important so you're not running a train that has the opportunity to be stuck behind a car," he said.
Reed, too, acknowledged tough lessons were learned since the streetcar opened in December 2014 thanks in part to a $47 million grant that funded about half the system's initial cost. But, he said, there was a silver lining to the bumpy start.
“I’d rather have a lesson learned where the federal government was paying 50 cents on the dollar,” Reed said.
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