Add one more bump in the road for the Atlanta streetcar: Ridership has plummeted in each of the first three months of 2016 to the lowest levels since the troubled, $98 million project launched 15 months ago.
The city instituted a $1 fare for the 2.7-mile loop on Jan. 1. Since then, ridership during the first quarter is down 48 percent over the same time period in 2015.
Ridership is just the latest problem for the streetcar, but it is particularly staggering in January and March, which fell 62 percent from the same two months last year.
A spokeswoman for Mayor Kasim Reed said the 2016 ridership numbers are “in line with the city’s expectations after the Atlanta Streetcar went from free fares to charging $1 per ride.” She also said the mayor expects ridership to “steadily increase over time.”
But Marc Scribner, who tracks streetcar projects across the country as a research fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, called Atlanta’s drop in ridership “exceptional.” The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a non-profit libertarian think tank, and Scribner said he generally opposes streetcar projects because of their high capital costs, fixed routes and slow speeds.
“You often see ridership stagnate … and you’ll see some decline when fares come online,” Scribner said. “But that’s a pretty exceptional drop and is something that should concern them. If that’s what you get after adding a dollar [fare], it’s not good.”
The inaugural year of operations featured turnover of nearly all of the system's top managers; confusion over whether the city or MARTA was calling the shots; scathing safety audits, and unreliable service from a host of equipment failures — all of which led to harsh criticism from federal authorities, which funded about half of the construction costs.
Melissa Mullinax, senior advisor to Reed, acknowledged that the problems — and resulting media coverage — probably had an impact in ridership, but “we’ve turned that around.” She also said the streetcar has been a successful economic development tool and in bridging downtown areas divided by the interstate.
The trains run from Centennial Olympic Park to the King Historic District, but the city has ambitious plans to grow the system to include more than 50 miles of tracks at a estimated cost of $5 billion. Getting operational problems under control and increasing ridership are key issues necessary to secure future federal grants for the expansion.
And while the city claims at least $1.5 billion worth of investment related to the streetcar, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis found that several of those projects were conceived before the route was identified in 2008. Those projects include Georgia State University's $60 million renovation of the former SunTrust Bank building and its $83 million College of Law; the Georgia Aquarium's $110 million dolphin exhibit; the $70 million National Center for Civil and Human Rights; and the $67 million College Football Hall of Fame.
‘This is a long-term play’
Still, A.J. Robinson, president of the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District which is an investor in the streetcar, said the project has been a tremendous boon for downtown, and that it is unfair to judge it after a little more than a year. He said officials are working on new technology, improved marketing and retooled operations — all of which, he said, should improve ridership.
“Our whole motivation is: how can we reconnect the neighborhoods of the city, starting with downtown, in a way that speaks to what we believe is the future lifestyle of city residents,” Robinson said. “Urbanization needs to be nurtured with the right infrastructure. This is a long-term play.”
Still, the short-term drop in ridership is concerning to to Yolanda Adrean, chairwoman of the Atlanta city council’s Transportation Committee, who called the 2016 ridership numbers “discouraging” and said that the decline “doesn’t meet the expectations that have been presented to council.”
But Adrean’s more pressing concern is whether the city should be in charge of streetcar operations.
“I think we need to have a hard conversation about how we move forward with the streetcar and who should be the operator,” Adrean said.
The mayor’s office is considering whether to outsource streetcar operations to a private company, and has contracted with an outside vender to provide management services and consulting since last fall.
Another issue: the 91,373 rides so far in 2016 have raised $45,186, according to the mayor’s office. It is unclear what is causing the discrepency between fare box revenue and the number of rides.
Georgia Senate Minority Whip Vincent Fort, who is considering a run for mayor in 2017, filed unsuccessful legislation this year that wold have forced the city to hand over streetcar operations to MARTA. He said streetcar success is important for the larger issue of transit throughout the city, and ridership numbers are important.
“In addition to the fare, you have these problems and what amounts to mismanagement,” Fort said. “The riders and potential riders know it as well. We’re at a critical juncture with mass transit in the city. There is a MARTA referendum coming up, and there are issues with the Beltline as far as how the transit part of it is going to be financed.
“So ridership going down precipitously is a cause of concern for me.”
Go here to watch a video of people answering the question: Is it worth a dollar to ride the streetcar?