Atlanta approves ambitious streetcar expansion plan

Officials have yet to secure funding for build out

Despite the Atlanta Streetcar’s rocky start, officials are moving forward with an ambitious long-term plan for citywide service.

This week, the Atlanta City Council approved a “Streetcar System Plan,” a 50-plus mile map that proposes five crosstown routes, connections to multiple MARTA stations and 22 miles of streetcar lines along the proposed Atlanta Beltline circle.

But streetcar fans and critics shouldn’t get too excited, as the plan will take years and billions of dollars to realize. The document, developed by Atlanta Beltline Inc. — the nonprofit overseeing the greenspace project — is the city’s first step toward securing needed funding.

“Approving the plan is essential to getting future funding to expand light rail and streetcar across Atlanta,” said Councilman Andre Dickens, chair of the city’s Community Development & Human Resources committee. “Ultimately the goal is to have people connected across the city and for economic development to occur.”

It remains unclear just how Atlanta plans to pay for the system’s expansion. The Streetcar System Plan, or SSP, is estimated to cost about $5 billion if built today, according to city and Beltline officials.

The existing Atlanta Streetcar, which circles a 2.7-mile track in downtown Atlanta, cost about $98 million to launch.

The most likely way the streetcar expansion would be developed is with a mix of federal and local funding, said John Orr, transportation division manager for the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Having the SSP means the city can now pursue funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts Program, a competitive discretionary grant program that provides slightly less than $2 billion per year for transit projects nationwide.

The New Starts program helped fund most of MARTA’s construction.

One solution to come up with the local matching funds could present itself as early as next year. Fulton County elected officials are weighing whether to put a transportation sales tax referendum on the November 2016 ballot.

Voters could be asked to approve up to an additional penny, which would generate about $1.3 billion over the five-year period, Orr said.

The elected officials would have to agree on the projects to fund with the money. So far, the mayors of Alpharetta and Johns Creek have indicated opposition to any of the money going toward transit — MARTA, in particular.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed hasn’t said whether he’ll push to have either the streetcar or Beltline on the potential project list.

“He believes it is still very early in the process to determine the best approach,” said Anne Torres, Reed’s director of communications.

The mayors and commissioners from Fulton will meet again next week to discuss the potential transportation sales tax. Officials from MARTA, the Beltline and the ARC have been invited.

“I’m sure this will enter the conversation as a potential project in that,” Orr said.

MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe said a MARTA plan to seek a half-penny sales tax in its existing service area of DeKalb and Fulton could help pay for some kind of transit in Atlanta, but that it wouldn’t necessarily be the streetcar.

“Yes, our expansion project would be one way to fund portions of the streetcar line,” Ashe said Thursday. “But another option would be to fund some other expansion of the heavy rail network within the city of Atlanta or South Fulton.”

Reed has previously said the city is considering a public-private partnership to help build out the Beltline’s streetcar portion.

The now-approved plan deletes a proposed route that would have put streetcars on Peachtree Road, from the Lindbergh MARTA station to Lenox Square.

District 7 Councilman Howard Shook, who represents much of Buckhead, asked that the leg be eliminated. The request came after recent controversy erupted over adding bike lanes to Peachtree, a proposal that drew the ire of area residents who didn’t want to share the road, which forced the Georgia Department of Transportation to scrap the idea.

Adding streetcars would have posed a similar problem, since the trolleys travel in traffic.

Shook said he opposed the Peachtree portion because of unanswered questions about how the streetcar would affect Buckhead’s notorious gridlock.

“We know from previous analysis and discussion that a lot more thought needs to be put into this,” Shook said in a statement issued this week. “The day may come when the public will support sharing precious Peachtree Road capacity with streetcars, but today isn’t it.”