Atlanta turns in plans to fix streetcar problems a day early

The city of Atlanta submitted plans to fix a slew of problems with its troubled streetcar on Monday — a day ahead of a state-imposed deadline.

But it remains unclear whether those plans will pass muster with the Georgia Department of Transportation, which has threatened to shut down the streetcar over safety concerns. A GDOT spokeswoman said the agency had received Atlanta’s plans but was still reviewing them.

Earlier this month the city gave GDOT more than 2,500 pages of plans to fix 41 concerns about safety and other issues raised in recent audits. The agency gave Atlanta until Tuesday to submit plans for an additional 19 issues.

Atlanta delivered those plans Monday.

“It remains the Atlanta streetcar’s commitment to operate a safe streetcar system that is in full compliance with federal and state requirements,” city officials wrote in a letter accompanying the plans submitted Monday.

GDOT and the Federal Transportation Administration have been sounding the alarm about the $98 million streetcar for months. The problems include poor maintenance procedures, inadequate staffing and a failure to properly investigate accidents.

Last month, GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry expressed the agency’s displeasure at Atlanta’s response, saying the city had failed to “provide timely, substantive and compliant responses to deficiencies” identified by auditors. He threatened to shut down the streetcar unless the city submitted adequate plans to address the problems.

Atlanta officials have repeatedly said the streetcar is safe. On Monday, Mayor Kasim Reed said the streetcar will be a long-term benefit for the city, in much the same way of other sweeping projects, such as the construction of Ga. 400.

Reed said he was confident the system would be seen as the foundation of a bustling new transit line in the heart of the city.

“The streetcar is always a long-term play. The streetcar is always a linchpin,” Reed said. “It’s part of a line. It’s not a train to nowhere, it’s a train for future lines. And you’re going to see some pretty big announcements that are going to push back on the notion of a streetcar that’s going nowhere.”

Gov. Nathan Deal said Monday that the state stepped in because, if not, federal transportation officials might intervene. The streetcar opened in December 2014 thanks in part to a $47 million federal grant that funded about half the system’s initial cost

“I feel confident that we will work out the details,” Deal said. “I just didn’t want the federal government threatening to cut off Georgia’s transportation project.”

At an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board meeting last week, MARTA Chief Executive Keith Parker said he’s confident that the fixes will instill “more confidence” in the system, and he said Atlanta is “making all the right choices” in laying out a future expansion of the streetcar.

The city last week voted to approve a referendum that would hike the city’s sales tax by a half-penny to raise $2.5 billion for transit. Along with fueling an expansion of MARTA’s heavy-rail network, it could also fund an extension of the streetcar up the Atlanta Beltline.

MARTA Board Chairman Robbie Ashe said the transit agency also learned another important lesson from the streetcar’s struggles. Expect the next round of plans to include a separate transit-only lane for the blue cars.

“Dedicated right of ways are important so you’re not running a train that has the opportunity to be stuck behind a car,” he said.

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