FTA sends stern letter to city, MARTA over Streetcar woes

By now, it’s no secret that the Atlanta Streetcar has had a bumpy ride.

Beginning with repeated delays before its 2014 opening, streetcar woes include staffing turmoil that's resulted in a leadership vacuum and a recent audit that highlights ongoing deficiencies in its safety and operations. That's to say nothing of a security breach last week that left multiple streetcars awash with graffiti.

The problems have earned the ire of federal authorities, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News have learned. The Federal Transit Administration has sent a stern warning to Mayor Kasim Reed and MARTA Chief Keith Parker about “continuing concerns with the safety and operation” of the system.” The Sept. 3 letter preceded a visit by a senior FTA official from Washington.

The “critical issues” raised in the letter include:

  • The suspension of streetcar service in July because of multiple defects with its overhead electrical system
  • Failure to maintain contracts with vendors for maintenance services
  • Poorly developed and implemented operating procedures
  • Lack of technical expertise because of high turnover
  • Significant leadership and staffing vacancies
  • Failure to comply with the state's accident reporting requirements

FTA Region IV Administrator Yvette Taylor admonished both the city and MARTA, which share responsibility for the $98 million system that runs in downtown Atlanta. Under the arrangement, Atlanta owns and operates the system, while MARTA provides “active management” and expertise, at least until the city has the technical capabilities to take the reins.

“Clearly, MARTA’s overall ‘active management’ role, as the entity ‘directly responsible for the day-to-day management of the Atlanta Streetcar,’ has not been sufficient to date,” Taylor wrote.

Atlanta, she added, also hasn’t made “sufficient efforts” to include MARTA in operations and maintenance processes.

The lack of coordination has delayed Atlanta’s original plan to take over day-to-day operations of the streetcar by December, documents show. Taylor warned that the FTA will not approve the transition until there’s improvement. According to a response sent jointly by Reed and Parker, Atlanta and MARTA will delay the hand-off for at least six months.

“The Project Partners wish to acknowledge upfront that the project is not ripe for obtaining FTA approval for transition of the city’s direct operation away from MARTA’s ‘active management’ role,” Reed and Parker wrote in their Sept. 17 response.

In the same letter, they laid out steps the entities are taking to address some of FTA’s concerns, including: hiring a new safety and security director; hiring a new vendor for emergency and annual maintenance of its overhead cable system; improving enforcement of safety plans and accident reporting.

Following the departure of the streetcar’s previous executive director, Atlanta also executed an emergency contract in August with Transdev Services to hire an interim leader through the end of November. The contract, provided through an open records request, is worth $99,999 — one penny short of requiring the Atlanta City Council’s approval under the city’s procurement laws.

Reed and Parker said in their letter that while “significant work remains” ahead, the streetcar has spurred economic development worth $1.5 billion, by their estimate. Nearly 600,000 people have used the free system since it launched late last December, according to the letter.

In a joint statement Tuesday, Atlanta and MARTA officials said they “readily acknowledge” the challenges and lessons learned.

“The City of Atlanta and MARTA recognize that the safety of passengers, staff and the public is of the utmost importance at all times. We will continue working collaboratively to ensure that the streetcar has the best technical and human resources in place to maintain and improve on our record of safe and reliable service.”

In a safety audit made public last week, two streetcar executives with the city and MARTA admitted they hadn't read its system safety program plan. The director of streetcar services — a MARTA contractor — even "denied any active management responsibilities," according to the audit. MARTA has said its satisfied with the director's performance, despite the widespread concerns raised in the report.

The problems could spell trouble for Atlanta’s bid for a new federal TIGER 7 grant worth $29.3 million. Reed hopes to use the money to extend the streetcar to the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail.

Atlanta won a $47.6 million federal transportation grant in 2010 to help kickoff the streetcar project. The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected to announce new grant winners sometime this fall.