Reporting from Atlanta — For the first time in more than six decades, this traffic-choked Southern city expects to see streetcars rumbling once more along its downtown streets.
For some Atlantans, the city's $72-million streetcar project — funded largely with a Department of Transportation grant awarded last month — is reason to celebrate and a welcome throwback to a time when, much like the old days in L.A., a trip across town meant riding the rails.
FOR THE RECORD:
Atlanta streetcars: An article in the Nov. 28 Section A about a plan to build a streetcar line in central Atlanta said that a downtown improvement district would pay $10 million to help fund the project. The improvement district will pay $20 million. —
But not everyone is on board.
Once completed in 2013, the 2.6-mile rail line will cater to tourists, connecting downtown's Centennial Olympic Park — home to a Coca-Cola museum and the Georgia Aquarium — to the popular, but less-centrally located Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.
Critics, however, note that the rail loop will do little to alleviate traffic in a metro area burdened with the nation's third-worst commute, according to a February analysis by Forbes magazine.
For metro residents like Randy Mattox, the effort seems like a matter of misplaced priorities.
"Will it help Atlanta as a whole? Absolutely not," said Mattox, 49, whose round-trip car commute from suburban East Point to Atlanta can be as long as two hours.
"It wouldn't make any difference at all for me," said optician David Mayes, 32, whose commute has been complicated by recent cuts to MARTA, the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.
Such blase reaction to a major "get" for the city has put Atlanta's new mayor, Kasim Reed, on the defensive. Though much of the criticism comes from suburbanites like Mattox and Mayes — who live beyond the city limits and the mayor's jurisdiction — the streetcar's legacy could still have ramifications for Reed, 41, who is considered a rising star in a Democratic Party that was shellacked in the recent midterm election.
After a spate of criticism in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution — including a front-page article headlined, "Pricey streetcar won't ease traffic" — Reed wrote a Nov. 12 commentary defending the project, calling it an "important win" that would create 900 construction jobs in the near term, and 5,600 more in the long-term once the line spurs economic revitalization in a struggling chunk of inner city.
"Folks on the other side of the debate trivialize the effects of traffic mitigation," Reed said in an interview last week, but "that was never the argument for it."
The mayor, who was elected in December, emphasized the importance of Atlanta's $11-billion tourism and convention industry.
"We compete every single day against cities like Las Vegas, Orlando and Washington, D.C.," he said. "All of the cities we compete against are moving competitively toward light rail." Reed also noted that he was instrumental in guiding a bill through the state Legislature this year that could allow the metro region to fund more ambitious projects to unclog traffic.
Besides the $47 million in federal funds, the city must contribute $15.6 million for capital costs, as well as $1 million per year for operations and maintenance of the line. A downtown improvement district will also pitch in about $10 million.
Reed emphasized that the relatively short loop is meant to be part of a more ambitious streetcar system that will eventually help connect people to a highly anticipated transportation system (either more streetcars or light rail) that will be part of the so-called BeltLine, a $2.8-billion redevelopment project circling the urban core.
The criticism of the streetcar project, Reed said, "has been driven more by the politics of the state and the region rather than our application for the streetcar project and what was intended by it."
The politics of transportation has long been challenging here, pitting the urban leviathan of Atlanta against the rest of the state, and informed by tricky racial and cultural undercurrents. Transportation has also been a central issue for a landlocked city that was born as a railroad hub, sprawled with the interstate system and thrived with the expansion of an airport that is today the world's busiest.
Critics of the streetcar, meanwhile, have wondered if tourists will really be lured onto a route that will take them along what is now a struggling area dotted with a few small businesses — but also empty lots, storefronts and pervasive homelessness.
A.J. Robinson, president of the business group Central Atlanta Progress, is convinced that the romance of the streetcar will win the day.
"Trying to compare a bus system with a streetcar is mixing apples and oranges," he said. "People find, for whatever reason, much more of a connection to riding a streetcar."