Trolling for millennials with the Atlanta Streetcar

Just before a shower of confetti and a sliced ribbon released a huge, navy blue beetle from its moorings on Tuesday, A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress, had a word for the old fogeys who can’t fathom why his city has spent nearly $100 million to revive a streetcar system that has been dead these 50 years.

“Frankly, we did not build it for you,” Robinson said. “We built it because Atlanta is in a global competition for attracting future human capital. We built it so that we will have a shot at having our children and grandchildren stay here in Atlanta.”

Many hopes undergird the back-to-the-future strategy made manifest this week by those blue behemoths. Like the 17th Street bridge built 10 years earlier, the Atlanta Streetcar project is an attempt to repair the 1960s bisection of Georgia’s capital city by the Downtown Connector.

The broad yellow bridge now connects Atlantic Station and the city’s west side to Midtown. Farther south, the new streetcars will reach out from thriving tourist spots to the Sweet Auburn community, which has been cut off from decades of downtown prosperity by I-75/85.

Likewise, the streetcar system is yet another move to reassert the influence of a downtown Atlanta that has seen its once-vaunted economic heft shift northward to Midtown and Buckhead.

But that is small stuff.

The Atlanta Streetcar project is indeed an expensive gamble. Amid Tuesday’s celebration, MARTA chief Keith Parker warned against expectations of “immediate gratification.”

New rail systems “are not for the faint of heart. They are immensely challenging,” he said.

But if the streetcar system succeeds, we may someday look at the tail end of 2014 as the serious beginning of regional competition for the hearts and souls of Georgia’s millennial generation.

If A.J. Robinson is right, if a generation of Georgians less smitten with cars and home ownership is in fact on the rise, millennials could become the anchor babies behind the revival of downtown Atlanta as an economic and political force.

“Millennials are definitely coming into the city of Atlanta. The recent census data verifies that,” a very happy Mayor Kasim Reed said after the ribbon-cutting. “Our population numbers are moving in a very competitive direction with the suburbs for the first time in a long time.”

Even somewhat dated 2010 census figures give the city of Atlanta a definite, 10 percent bulge in population growth among those between the ages of 20 and 34. By comparison, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report last week cited a 31 percent drop in Fayette County’s millennial population between 2007 and 2013.

The millennials are a generation powered by smartphones and wracked with debt from student loans. Thus far, their biggest political impact, at least in Georgia, may be on the state’s attitude toward mass transit.

“MARTA’s no longer this pariah or bad word that folks run away from,” said Parker, the MARTA CEO. “We are part of the solution of what makes Atlanta iconic versus what’s holding it back.”

Hence the Atlanta Streetcar project, which will be at least temporarily overseen by MARTA. And hence MARTA’s coming decision to equip all its buses and trains with wireless Internet access.

“For some of our longer-term, traditional riders, what excites them is a bus and train that gets them there on time for an affordable price,” Parker said. “What attracts millennials a whole lot more — we have to up the technology game. We’ve got to keep them connected. They don’t care as much about the speed. They care more about the quality of the ride.”

The connection between millennials, economic development and transit is already reverberating in the state Capitol. At Tuesday’s ribbon-cutting for the Streetcar, much was made about the fact that it came just as Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl crowds were descending on the city.

More important was the fact that the Streetcar opening coincided with a report, released Tuesday, on increased funding for transportation issued by a House-Senate study committee. One revolutionary recommendation:

“Acknowledge the need for additional investment in transit systems around the state of Georgia. … (I)t is critical that the state increase its commitment to the development of responsible, well-funded and coordinated public transportation in metropolitan areas.”

The lines are an indication that MARTA could have an ex officio seat at the negotiating table later this month when state lawmakers try to find at least $1.5 billion in new, annual cash for transportation funding.

But revolutions are never a sure thing. In a scrum with reporters after the Streetcar ribbon-cutting, the ebullient mayor of Atlanta was suddenly cautious.

“I do believe that when you look into the details of the legislation, you will see a friendlier tone toward MARTA,” Reed said. “I don’t want to overtalk it because I don’t want to kill the bill.”

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.