Council approves pursuit of downtown streetcar system

The Atlanta City Council on Tuesday approved a plan to seek federal funds for the installation of a $72 million streetcar system along the lower half of downtown, at the same time offering a stern budgetary warning -- slow down the spending.

“I am going to vote for it and hold my nose,” Councilman C.T. Martin said. “We really need to find some money and we need to stop spending money until we get some relief on this debt.”

Yolanda Adrean, who chairs the finance executive committee, reiterated her concerns offered during the recent passage of the city's $559 million budget that making commitments such as these were going to prevent Atlanta from taking on viable future projects.

“It is barely the first day of our new fiscal year; it is only July 6,” Adrean said. “There are going to be lots of opportunities for us. Every time you say yes to a big project, it precludes your ability to do anything else.”

In passing three key pieces of legislation, the council ignored those warnings and chose to enable the city to move forward with the streetcar proposal and have the ability to issue bonds to help pay it.

“This demonstrates that the city council has an understanding of the importance of this project,” said Luz Borrero, the city's deputy chief operating officer. “It is vital for Atlanta to demonstrate that we stand behind quality of life issues.”

Councilman Aaron Watson, who supported the legislation, said the addition of the streetcars would make the city safer and spur the economy.

“In this game that we are in, we can’t afford to lose because we can’t move quickly,” Watson said. “It is essential to the economic vitality of the city and it is going to help develop neighborhoods. There is no downside to this.”

City officials next will submit a proposal to the U.S. Department of Transportation seeking $52 million to build a streetcar system that would run from Centennial Olympic Park to The King Center.

If the DOT awards the money, the city would provide an additional $10 million and the Central Atlanta Progress' Downtown Community Improvement District would come up with another $10 million.

This is Atlanta’s recent second attempt at securing federal dollars for a streetcar system. Earlier this year, federal authorities rejected a $298.3 million proposal that called for a system running the length of Peachtree Street. Yet Atlanta had no local funding to offer.

The streetcar system would take two years to build and cost $2.2 million annually to operate, leading to short- and long-term jobs, Borrero said.

When Atlanta failed in its earlier bid, streetcar projects were approved in Dallas, New Orleans, Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz.

“Most of these cities we do compete with for convention business,” Councilman Michael Julian Bond said. “This formula has been proven in other cities and the return on investment is real. This is real money, real dollars.”