Atlanta Streetcar extension sparks concerns from some area residents

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Long-sought plans for transit on the Atlanta Beltline are taking a big step forward as MARTA plans to extend the downtown streetcar to Ponce City Market.

The plan, unveiled in September, calls for extending the streetcar east along residential streets to the Beltline, then north to the market. But that plan has sparked opposition from some residents who say their neighborhoods will be adversely affected.

Opponents say they support transit but don’t want the streetcar running down narrow residential streets. Some say it’s a mistake to invest more money in a little-used streetcar that has failed to live up to expectations since it began service eight years ago.

“Why would the city want to marry the best project they’ve ever done — the Beltline — with the worst project they’ve ever done — the streetcar?” said Fred Duncan, an Old Fourth Ward resident who’s leading a group opposed to the project.

Supporters say the project is a crucial first step toward transit along the entire 22-mile Beltline loop. They say expanding the streetcar and addressing its shortcomings will help Atlanta accommodate hundreds of thousands of new residents in coming decades.

“With the growth and the economic success of Atlanta, people are moving here,” MARTA Deputy General Manager Josh Rowan said. “We have to focus on moving people and not moving cars.”

For good or bad, the streetcar extension would be a significant development for two defining Atlanta transportation projects.

Rail has been planned for the Beltline since Ryan Gravel proposed the transit-and-trail loop in his 1999 master’s thesis. Atlanta has made substantial progress on the trail, but transit has been elusive.

Four years ago, the MARTA board proposed building 15 miles of light rail on the Beltline with part of the proceeds from a transit sales tax approved by Atlanta voters. But MARTA recently backed away from plans for rail along Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta, and it could do the same on the proposed Clifton Corridor transit line.

Transit advocates fear MARTA might also back away from plans for rail on the Beltline. But the streetcar extension would deliver the first rail on the loop.

Atlanta debuted the $99 million streetcar with high expectations in December 2014. But when the city began charging for rides a year later, ridership plummeted and has never recovered. In fiscal 2022, passengers took 138,135 trips on the streetcar — or less than 400 trips a day on average.

In 2016 state regulators threatened to shut down the streetcar over inadequate staffing, a failure to properly investigate accidents and other problems. Atlanta eventually addressed those issues, and MARTA took over the troubled transit line in 2018.

But fundamental problems remain. Because it operates on city streets along its 2.7-mile route, the streetcar is often stuck in traffic. Some residents complain that it’s faster to walk where they’re going than take the streetcar.

MARTA believes its latest plan can help fix what ails the streetcar and deliver transit on the Beltline.

The agency plans to extend the streetcar along Edgewood Avenue, Randolph Street, Auburn Avenue and Irwin Street to the Beltline. From there, it would turn north to Ponce City Market.

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

Credit: Courtesy of MARTA

The 2-mile extension would include five stations. MARTA’s Rowan said linking the market to downtown by rail would attract more passengers. Before the coronavirus pandemic, MARTA estimated streetcar ridership would increase to 3,000 a day once the extension is completed.

Eventually, MARTA plans to extend the streetcar west to the Beltline Westside Trail and the Atlanta University Center. The more places it goes, the more passengers Rowan believes it will attract.

In the meantime, MARTA and the city plan to address bottlenecks on the existing streetcar route — perhaps by giving the vehicles priority at traffic signals and restricting parking on parts of the route.

Matthew Rao, chairman of the group Beltline Rail Now, sees the project as a crucial first step toward light rail on the Beltline and beyond. The bigger the rail network, the greater its benefits, he said.

“The Beltline as a stand-alone project with two streetcar loops connecting it is something,” Rao said. “But a system of streetcars and light rail in the city of Atlanta is something bigger.”

The streetcar extension has been in the works for years. But many residents are only now paying close attention because it affects their neighborhoods. That fact was underscored this past week when Atlanta temporarily closed Irwin Street at the Beltline to see how it would affect traffic. The city could permanently close the stretch of road as part of the streetcar extension.

That’s just one aspect of the project that has alarmed some residents. They also worry about streetcars running along narrow residential streets, noise, construction and other disruptions.

Jennifer Bentson, who lives along the route, said many residents support transit on the Beltline.

“But is there support for this streetcar route?” she said. “No.”

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Design of the streetcar extension is only 30% complete, and many details have not been determined. Rowan said detailed feedback from residents can help the agency address their concerns.

But MARTA has made it clear the extension — estimated to cost $176 million to $215 million — will happen. City Councilman Amir Farokhi, who represents the area, said MARTA must address residents’ concerns for the project to be successful.

“Any sort of significant change is going to have some folks happy and some folks unhappy,” Farokhi said. “The challenge here is to make sure the public is served with better transit accessibility while the immediate neighbors’ concerns also are addressed.”