Council members walk the path of potential streetcars

It was early in the morning and the temperature was rising. Five members of the Atlanta City Council casually strolled down the lower end of Auburn Avenue on Wednesday, looking at the old homes and dreaming of possibilities.

As they passed the birth home of Martin Luther King Jr., a crowd of tourists lined up to get inside.

In a couple of years, those tourists might be delivered to the King home on a new streetcar running between Auburn Avenue and the Centennial Park area. The council on Tuesday voted to seek more than $50 million in federal money for such a line, even though it also means coming up with $10 million from an already stretched city budget.

The five council members decided to walk the route a day later, and not all were impressed.

“The purpose of this trip was that y’all were supposed to show us where the commercial development was coming,” C.T. Martin, who voted reluctantly in favor of the project, said to his fellow council members. “Y’all haven’t shown me anything yet.”

Supporters of the project -- the latest in a string of streetcar or trolley proposals for downtown -- argue it will draw more tourists who will shop, eat and party, along with new restaurants, clubs and stores to serve them. Critics doubt that commerce will come, especially along Auburn Avenue on the south end of the route.

Wellington Howard, the owner of Georgia Insurance Brokerage, has been on his Auburn Avenue block for 39 years and welcomes the latest plan, which he hopes would boost tourism in the area.

“And it would add some culture back to the street,” chimed in his senior underwriter, Nikki Bradford.

On the corner of Auburn Avenue and Bell Street, Martin lamented the broken pavement, weeds and abandoned lots on the block.

“We spent millions of dollars on this during the Olympics,” said Martin, looking at the intricately designed, but crumbling sidewalks. “Now look at it.”

But council member Kwanza Hall, who represents downtown Atlanta, sees potential in every boarded building and weed-choked lot.

Wearing shorts and dragging his bike along, Hall was the unofficial tour guide for the group that included Yolanda Adrean, Michael Julian Bond and Joyce Sheperd. Adrean was one of three council members who voted against the project.

“This was a step in the right direction and I am glad everyone came with an open mind,” Hall said. “They were able to see the good and the bad. They were able to see a need for investment and a need for support.”

Hall acknowledged problems with the area.

“This is the city’s front doorstep to the world. The first place tourists want to go because they want to visit the King District, so we want to make sure they get a good experience,” Hall said. “It is not what it should look like, but I am committed to changing that.”

Atlanta seeks $52 million in Department of Transportation money to build the system. The city would pay $10 million in startup costs, and Central Atlanta Progress’ Downtown Community Improvement District would contribute $10 million for the $72 million project. Atlanta will likely compete against dozens of cities vying for a piece of $460 million in grants.

Last year the city asked the DOT for $298 million to build 9.2 miles of track, which included the current proposed route, along with Peachtree Street from Five Points to Peachtree Pointe. That proposal was rejected primarily because Atlanta offered no local money and the bid represented 20 percent of the $1.5 billion available at the time.

Luz Borrero, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, estimates that 2,330 riders -- tourists, students and locals -- would use the streetcars daily. The fare would be $2.

Despite voting to seek the DOT money, Martin said the city has bigger priorities and is worried by the poor track record of revitalization along Auburn Avenue.. He noticed that a monument erected for the Olympics is gone, replaced by a big hole.

“There is no maintenance and no follow through. We could have made Auburn Avenue top stuff,” Martin said. “The question is, does Auburn Avenue lose again? Will the streetcar mean as much to Auburn as we want it to mean or will we be tricked again?”