After T-SPLOST defeat, transit plans slowed, but not stopped

Street car line under construction, private funding eyed for other projects

Despite this summer’s failure of the regional T-SPLOST referendum, there’s still one place where big new mass transit plans are cooking: the city of Atlanta.

A new streetcar line is under construction and likely to open in 2014. The planned rail component of the Beltline, far from sinking to oblivion after the T-SPLOST, is the subject of intense talks for innovative private funding, and is even sprouting new proposed lines. Even the state, long stymied on transit, is taking the first steps toward a long-discussed transit hub downtown.

“You can’t really expand the road system in the city because it’s so urbanized,” making street widening too expensive, said Tom Weyandt, transportation policy advisor to the mayor. “I think as much as anything demographics is what’s going in the city’s favor - younger, more diverse populations seeking urban areas, and that’s what transit serves best.”

Passengers of Atlanta’s core transit system, MARTA, have endured cutbacks and fare hikes. But that hasn’t dimmed the prospects of some other projects, city leaders insist. The big question: Which ones are likely to ever become real and give people options to avoid traffic congestion?

Many areas outside Atlanta are studying transit projects as well, but funding to build anything big is elusive. In Georgia, road work has a legally mandated deep pocket, the gas tax. Transit doesn’t.

The T-SPLOST would have earmarked $3 billion for mass transit. Following its defeat, Gov. Nathan Deal told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that thoughts of big money for big regional rail projects were dead for the moment, and that counties and towns could volunteer to work together to “accommodate their particular needs.”

It’s easier for Atlanta than the suburbs. Transit has strong support among city voters, and, in Mayor Kasim Reed, a leader who’s willing to push. T-SPLOST failed in every county, but won in the city of Atlanta.

“I think a lot of it hinges on … Reed, who has made it a point to really try to pursue growing transit in Atlanta,” said Ashley Robbins, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit, an Atlanta-based transit advocacy group. ” I think [he] sees it as part of his legacy as mayor to expand the cause of transit in the city, in particular the Beltline.”

The Beltline

Funding is the big question for rail on the Beltline, now a collection of parks and paths.

Local funding for the Beltline, estimated at one point to cost $1.5 billion, was supposed to come from increases in property taxes along the corridor. But then the real estate bust wrought havoc with property values.

To complicate matters, the Beltline has now become different than a belt. In addition to the original 22-mile proposed loop of transit, trails and parks, planners have started to draw additional streetcar lines that would connect it across town. They plan to get public comment on which lines should be priorities next year, but likely candidates include some sections of the belt and east-west streetcar lines across Ponce de Leon Avenue or North Avenue, according to Weyandt.

Though the failed T-SPLOST had earmarked $602 million for the Beltline, Reed believes there’s a new source of money in play: a public-private partnership.

He wouldn’t comment on details but said he expected to have an announcement next year.

“We’re in several conversations - at least three - with private sector partners to focus on the transit and light rail component of the Atlanta Beltline,” Reed said. “So we think that the path to funding it is going to be a public-private partnership going forward.”

“Public-private partnership” can mean a lot of things. But transit is being funded with private dollars elsewhere - most recently in Denver, where private companies will build and operate new lines and be repaid based on the success of the rail system.

Others have suggested “value capture,” a system with similarities to the tax allocation district tax that already exists along the Beltline.

Just as roads need tax money to be maintained, transit almost always needs subsidies beyond ticket fares.

Weyandt said development around transit stations might help draw private partners if land is included in the deal or the plan raises the value of land they already have.

Reed said he is “very confident” that a public-private partnership could yield more than the T-SPLOST proposed, up to $800 million.

The Streetcar

One rail project has moved beyond negotiations: a $92 million streetcar line for downtown Atlanta. Work is underway and will likely open in 2014.

It will be metro Atlanta’s first rail transit expansion since 2000, when the North Springs MARTA station opened.

The figure-eight streetcar line is being built between the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and Centennial Olympic Park. But it’s more than that. If Beltline segments are built as proposed in the T-SPLOST, the streetcar line would also link into them.

According to Weyandt, extensions of the streetcar could go under construction fairly quickly.

That could change the basic definition of the Beltline, away from a loop to a bigger urban transit network.

“I don’t make the distinction between the Beltline and the streetcar network,” Weyandt said. “We’re going to be expanding the streetcar network, and portions of it are going to be on the Beltline.”

Passenger Terminal

Much more in question are two projects the state Department of Transportation is heading up: high speed rail and a passenger terminal in downtown Atlanta near Five Points, at the area just west of CNN Center known as “the Gulch.”

The state hopes to build the terminal as part of a mixed-use development whose rent revenue would help pay for the transit terminal. It has hired a master developer, a team composed of Forest City Enterprises, The Integral Group and Cousins Properties, and studies are under way to see if the plan is feasible.

DOT does not yet have a cost estimate, but similar projects have cost between $500 million and $1.6 billion, DOT spokeswoman Jill Goldberg said.

Timelines are unpredictable this early, but if political and funding hurdles are surmounted, design could take a couple of years and construction perhaps three.

If the terminal were built tomorrow, however, there would be no commuter or high-speed rail to use it. Initially it might get the city’s Xpress motor coaches off the street and provide a more inviting place than the “temporary” quarters Greyhound uses a few blocks away.

High Speed Rail

High Speed Rail is a tough sell because of huge costs, but Atlanta Mayor Reed recently advocated for a line from Atlanta to Savannah.

He called it “an inspiring idea” that could link two economic centers and get Atlantans to the coast faster.

Reed insisted finding the billions to build and operate such a line is possible. He cited the example of public-private partnerships or a government infrastructure bank, where cities and states could borrow money cheaply, but he hasn’t elaborated.

The state DOT points out big roadblocks to high-speed rail lines, however.

“I don’t know how they get off the ground in our state,” DOT Commissioner Keith Golden said. While he praised Reed’s boldness, he said Georgia currently couldn’t even raise the matching funds for such a project if massive federal grants were available.

In the end, streetcars’ big advantage may simply be that they’re less expensive. That’s fine by Atlanta resident and Beltline researcher Gerry Neumark.

“I would like to see an expansion of rail,” he said. “I think it’s going to be very very slow but I think it’s going to happen.”