Some MARTA officials question Atlanta Streetcar extension

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Credit: Christina Matacotta

Agency on track to restore streetcar rail service in March

MARTA is tentatively moving ahead with plans for an Atlanta Streetcar extension even as it scrambles to restart the troubled rail line.

Agency officials said Thursday that MARTA remains on track to return rail service to the streetcar line by March. MARTA suspended streetcar rail service in November because of safety concerns and to repair the streetcar’s wheels. Since then, MARTA has operated specially marked shuttle vans along the route.

Meanwhile, the agency continues to plan a 2.5-mile extension of the streetcar east to Ponce City Market and the Atlanta Beltline. Final design of the extension is set to begin by July, a MARTA board of directors committee learned Thursday.

The news comes as MARTA is reprioritizing its Atlanta expansion project list in light of rising inflation and other financial realities. The agency has proposed prioritizing seven of the 17 projects it initially pledged to build with the proceeds of a transit sales tax approved by Atlanta voters in 2016. It has not released its proposed list.

On Thursday some MARTA board members questioned whether spending $230 million on a streetcar extension is the best use of the agency’s money, given its troubled history.

“I have some serious concerns about whether this $230 million of Atlanta’s money is being spent in the right way and in the right place,” said board member Bill Floyd, who represents DeKalb County.

“Is it viable and is it really going to serve the purpose we want it to serve?” added board member Stacy Blakley, a Fulton County board member.

MARTA is negotiating with Mayor Andre Dickens’ office on a revised project list. CEO Collie Greenwood told board members Thursday that their concerns about the streetcar are being considered in those negotiations. Ultimately, the decision will be made by Atlanta officials and MARTA.

Thursday’s discussion was the latest development for a streetcar that has a troubled history.

Atlanta launched the 2.7-mile downtown streetcar eight years ago. Service initially was free, and it drew big crowds. But the number of passengers plummeted when the city began charging for rides.

Later, state regulators threatened to shut down the streetcar amid concerns about maintenance, staffing and other problems. Atlanta addressed those concerns, but it transferred the troubled line to MARTA in 2018.

Some problems persist. Because it does not have its own right of way, the streetcar is often stuck in traffic.

Most recently, MARTA took its four streetcar vehicles out of service after it discovered wear and tear on their wheels that posed a safety hazard.

MARTA has continued to provide service along the route, using shuttles. But ridership has fallen from about 16,000 passengers a month before rail service was suspended to about 2,200 a month for the shuttles.

The streetcar repairs are expected to cost about $7.4 million. The first vehicle is already under repair and should be ready for service by March, Deputy Chief Mechanical Officer Daniel Hecht told the board’s operations and safety committee Thursday.

The board’s planning committee also received an update on plans to extend the streetcar to Ponce City Market. The project would nearly double the length of the streetcar route. Under the current schedule, the extension would open in 2028.

MARTA officials and streetcar supporters say extending the streetcar line will encourage more people to ride it and will provide the first segment of long-promised rail transit along the Atlanta Beltline. On Thursday, Beltline transit supporter Matthew Rao urged the Atlanta City Council Transportation Committee to work with MARTA to expedite the streetcar extension.

“We must begin building the city for people and not for cars by moving this project forward,” Rao said.

The extension has also drawn criticism from some neighborhood residents, who fear it will disrupt traffic in the area. Wilbur Fitzgerald, an Auburn Avenue resident, told council members that Atlanta is a “car town.”

“People will not be coaxed out of their cars when they see a slow-moving streetcar going around in circles,” Fitzgerald said.