Bill Torpy at Large: Atlanta Streetcar: All messed up and nowhere to go

A few years back, the feds had millions of stimulus dollars to hand out for “shovel ready” projects. Atlanta raised its shovel and got a very big shiny toy, a brand new streetcar.

Streetcars have become the rage, and Atlanta originally wanted funding for a $300 million, 9-mile project up Peachtree Street. Instead, the Obama administration patted the city on the head and gave Atlanta the Streetcar Junior version, one that shuttles a 2.7-mile loop from the MLK Center to Centennial Olympic Park — or 1.3 miles each way.

The feds coughed up $47 million for the $72 million project, which eventually crept to $100 million.

But who’s to complain? We got a tram and someone else paid for half of it. Not half bad!

Well, the state is complaining. And threatening. The Georgia DOT said it might even shut down the streetcar unless the city gets its act together Running the thing.

To get funding, Atlanta, which hadn’t run trolleys since Harry Truman was president, had to bring in MARTA. The shotgun marriage hasn’t worked well.

According to the DOT, Atlanta Streetcar is an operation in disarray. It has had unstable leadership, inconsistent maintenance inspections, poor reporting of accidents, muddled operations and a vacancy rate of 48 percent for “safety critical positions.” (The city contends it’s 18 percent.)

Streetcars have had several accidents, although fortunately no bad ones. Hitting parked cars or right-of-way obstructions “has been a theme of accidents.” Many investigations remained open.

When reading the minutes from an April meeting of streetcar officials and state DOT investigators, one can almost see the blank stares. Here are some phrases: “has not submitted the final report”…”the state is still awaiting what exactly Atlanta Streetcar is going to do”… “the state can assume nothing is being done”…”stripping down the plans and removing requirements is simply not going to work”…”no investigation report prepared” …”there was no response” and “Again, there was no response from the group.”

Or this: The system has no way to monitor streetcar “overruns” of stop lights. A streetcar official told the state that the operators were responsible to report them. But, he added, the “typical sources of this information are customer complaints.”

This passage sums it up: “But as it stands, the state has nothing, no transparency, no progress reports, no status, and therefore is at a complete disadvantage to support the Streetcar’s strategy because it is completely unknown.”

The streetcar folks turned over their responses to the state Tuesday and DOT will review them for at least 10 business days. If you go downtown in two weeks and there are no blue trolleys rolling, you’ll know the answer.

Also, the city is advertising for an outside firm to run the operation.

I was rooting for the project to work — still am — because downtown has been waiting for a spark since Mayor Kasim Reed was a lad in short pants. Although the verdict after 18 months of operation has largely been a collective shrug. It’s something to do once, like visiting Underground Atlanta.

The streetcar does help tie together two parts of town split decades ago by the Downtown Connector. But it’s a tiny ecosystem that really doesn’t go where you want to go.

Last year, the system had 900,000 riders when it was free. This year, they started charging a buck and scared off the homeless and those who'd rather walk and save the money. Ridership is half what it was.

The streetcar effort has been trying to shake off the sneaking feeling that it’s a boondoggle, which makes expanding it to places where people actually live a more difficult proposition.

The mayor’s office said the “streetcar has been linked to more than $2.5 billion dollars in private investment within a five-minute walk of the route. Some detractors have argued that this link cannot be proven. They’re not in the meetings Mayor Reed is in, where he hears directly from CEOs and developers. They’re saying the Atlanta Streetcar is a deciding factor.”

He added, “The Atlanta Streetcar is in the black and within its current operating budget. We believe we will be able to apply the valuable lessons learned during the design and construction of the initial leg of the Atlanta Streetcar to the expansion project, and finally, we believe Atlanta residents and visitors will respond to the expansion by making the Streetcar a regular part of their lives.”

Now, I understand that public transportation is not designed to pay for itself. But saying it’s “in the black” is simply some creative Atlantaese on Hizzoner’s part. WSB reported that running the operation from January 2016 to June 2017 will cost $7.5 million and will bring in $588,517 during that time.

In November, Atlanta voters might be asked to pony up another half-penny in sales tax to fund other transit options. The money would go to MARTA, but I think what the city does from here on with the streetcar might have a bearing on that vote.