The Atlanta Streetcar will miss its planned summer opening and won’t start rolling until November, city leaders said Tuesday. But Tiger Feazell isn’t holding his breath.
The manager of Will’s Way Creole Kitchen on Auburn Avenue has seen prolonged construction work in front of his restaurant deter customers for months. Workers and supervisors drop in from time to time with updates, but no one can say when he’ll start reaping the benefits of the streetcar service.
“June, that got pushed back to July,” said Feazell. “July is looking like August. I have to say, the most honest answer I got was from a MARTA employee. She told me ‘I don’t know.’”
Cost overruns and schedule delays have beset the $100 million Atlanta Streetcar, a 2.7-mile loop from Centennial Olympic Park to the King Center, since it broke ground in February 2012. And Atlanta city officials are still pumping the brakes on the launch.
Atlanta Streetcar Director Tim Borchers said Tuesday it could take up to four more months to finish all the tasks on the project’s checklist, if no other delays arise. Speaking to an Atlanta City Council committee Tuesday, Borchers said the system still requires several layers of testing and approvals from MARTA, state and federal authorities.
Mayor Kasim Reed has previously said the streetcar will open by year’s end. A spokeswoman from his office repeated his pledge Tuesday in a written statement.
“The mayor has said from the start that the Atlanta Streetcar will open in 2014 and it will,” Melissa Mullinax said in the statement. “He has consistently said the only deadline that matters is his promise of opening by Dec. 31, 2014.”
‘No one will remember opening day’
Tom Weyandt, deputy chief operating officer for the city, said the most recent delay — a problem with the streetcar’s overhead cable system — was out of the city’s control, in part because MARTA is overseeing the work.
“I’m not blaming MARTA, but we can’t exercise control over the contractor,” Weyandt said. “We can cajole, we can persuade.”
Still, Weyandt points to development already emerging around the streetcar line as evidence that the system is positive for the city.
“My prediction is six months after this opens, no one will remember opening day … the system will be open and we’ll see all kinds of impact,” he said. “This seems much more important now, but it’s a system that will be here for 100 years.”
Streetcar planners initially said service would begin in late April or early May. But paralyzing winter storms, complications with relocating underground utilities and indecision about who would operate the streetcar wreaked havoc with that timeline. So the city rolled back the start date to “summer.”
“To me, all of this points out this project hasn’t had wise and efficient management,” said City Councilman C.T. Martin, who has long criticized the streetcar as an inadequate response to the city’s transportation needs.
A.J. Robinson, head of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, said delays are to be expected on big and complicated projects like the streetcar. ADID has contributed funds to the project.
“I’ve said before that innovation is messy and this project is very innovative for everyone involved,” he said.
Engine of development or ‘expensive toy?’
Work is progressing on the streetcar. On July 7, the contractor submitted a formal request for the project to be deemed complete. City leaders and MARTA officials now have until July 21 to review the work.
The city is also hiring and training superintendents, supervisors, operators and technicians.
Later this month, the city will embark on a 60- to 90-day testing period for the streetcar on the tracks, according to Sharon Gavin, spokeswoman for the Atlanta Streetcar. The Federal Transit Administration and Georgia Department of Transportation still have to sign off on the project after that — a process that could take days or months.
Martin predicts the system will face ridership problems and lose money. He called the streetcar an “expensive toy” for downtown booster Central Atlanta Progress — one that won’t serve the average Atlantan.
“I’ve got to be lost, and liking quite a bit of fantasy to want to get on an instrument just to go around and around,” he said.
Transit advocates say that’s missing the point.
‘Right now it’s building up the city’
No transit system in the country is a money-maker. But proponents say streetcars tend to spur property investment and inject new life into derelict parts of downtown.
Downtown boosters say the streetcar adds to a renaissance of development in this part of town. Since 2010, they say, $370 million worth of capital investment in 26 projects has been completed within a 5-minute walk of the route. Another 26 projects worth $375 million are on track to be completed in 2014, according to Central Atlanta Progress.
That new development brings in higher property taxes and sales taxes, said Lee Biola, chairman of Citizens for Progressive Transit.
Biola said he hopes the Atlanta Streetcar will generate enthusiasm for more intown transit options. Eventually, the city would like to bring streetcar service to the Beltline and add some cross-town connections.
“People may see what the streetcar technology looks like and get excited about the prospect of expanding it to the Beltline,” Biola said.
In between taking orders at Arepa Mia, a Venezuelan restaurant inside the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, Edelbys Lopez praised the project, saying it will only add to downtown’s revitalization.
“From my point of view, it’s amazing,” Lopez said, as customers lined up to order. “Right now it’s building up the city and Old Fourth Ward, and it’s going to be great.”
Lopez wishes that the streetcar was already running. But he expressed little concern about the delays.
“Just take your time,” he said of the line, which passes just steps from the historic market. The streetcars, he said, “will bring us more business, more people, more tourists.”
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