Atlanta streetcar on track for Tuesday opening

The Atlanta streetcar will be operational on Tuesday, reviving a form of public transit not seen in Atlanta since 1949.

The Tuesday opening of the long-delayed $98 million, four-car streetcar system will beat a self-imposed deadline by Mayor Kasim Reed by one day. It also will come just in time to greet tens of thousands of visitors to downtown Atlanta for the Dec. 30 Chick Fil-A Peach Bowl at the Georgia Dome and the annual New Year’s Eve peach drop at The Atlanta Underground.

What awaits riders? A free ride over the next three months, Reed said, along a 2.7 mile loop around downtown Atlanta. Bounded mainly by Auburn and Edgewood avenues, access points include Centennial Olympic Park, the King Center, Georgia State University and the Peachtree Center MARTA rail station.

“When it opens, it will be no cost, clean and safe,” Reed said.

After three months, fares will be $1, which Reed said will be appealing to residents, downtown workers, Georgia State students and the millions of tourists who visit the center city annually.

“A guest at a downtown hotel could see the (Georgia) Aquarium and visit the King Center for $1 per trip.”

Reed had set a Dec. 31 deadline for the streetcar’s debut after the system experienced several delays. The project, which broke ground in 2012, was originally planned to open in April or May 2013.

In November, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution exclusively reported that the Federal Transit Administration warned the city of ongoing safety concerns — such as inadequate signage and pavement markings — and delayed the day Reed hoped that the streetcar could begin taking passengers. Reed says all of the safety issues have been addressed and federal approvals granted.

“We were focused on getting this right. Now we’re ready to go,” Reed said.

Being ready to go was not without some hiccups. The months of delays increased the cost of the project. Reed’s demand that the streetcar operate with new rather than used streetcars inflated the budget by roughly $10 million. Other changes pushed the roughly $70 million budget to nearly $100 million.

Regardless of the inflating costs, Reed views the opening of the streetcar as a low-cost asset to downtown transit that the city controls. More streetcars could be operational someday, Reed said. An ambition would be to use the streetcars to connect downtown to the Atlanta Betline, the city’s green space project that aims to turn a 22-mile loop of dilapidated rail lines into a string of parks, trails and transit, the mayor said.

“I could see us extending to Beltline and then eventually going north and south,” Reed said.

Working in favor of plans for more streetcars, Reed said, is that such transportation initiatives are attractive to two important players: the federal government, which funded $46 million of the project and seeks to fund similar projects around the country; and sought-after millennials, who increasingly prefer to live in cities and who prefer the option of public transportation.

Reed said Atlanta must win the competition for attracting well-educated, highly skilled millennials that businesses covet. A key to that is urban living.

And so long as the federal government shows a preference for funding local transit projects of this style and scale, Reed said Atlanta should continue to take advantage.

“Name any public project where 45 percent is paid for by the federal government,” Reed said. “The Obama administration is funding almost half of this project and we are getting a terrific value.”

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