The Atlanta Business Chronicle of April 13 quoted Foundation Vice President Benita Dodd in an “Atlanta awaits new streetcar,” an article on the Atlanta Streetcar.
By H.M. Cauley
At age 11, Tim Borchers had what he describes as a “life-changing” experience. His grandparents gave him a gift: a pass to ride on the streetcar in his Australian hometown.
“The moment I gave the conductor my ticket, I was lost in the streetcar world,” he said.
The 52-year-old spent most of his life in Melbourne, the capital of Victoria in south Australia, where streetcars are a key transit component, ferrying commuters and tourists along 150 miles of track that crisscross the city and stretch out as far as the bay to the Great Southern Ocean. The system became a road map for Borchers’ career, leading to streetcar consulting and managing jobs in the U.S. Last year, the line ended in Atlanta when Borchers became deputy commissioner of public works. He settled into a condo in the Fairlie-Poplar part of downtown and went to work on his latest project: directing the city’s new streetcar.
“It’s what I like doing — making streetcar systems and running them successfully,” Borchers said. “I’ve spent the last 13 years doing that, and I have seen how they can make a change. When streetcars pulled out of cities, you got urban decay; you started seeing empty buildings. When we put them back, they corrected that.”
Borchers backs up his claim by citing the success of the streetcar in Portland, Ore., where lines started running in 2002. “They had 1.4 million users; in 2010, it was up to 3.9 million,” he said. “More than half of the city’s new development in the last decade has taken place within one block of the line; 10,000 housing units have been developed within three blocks.”
He’s also quick to point out that Atlanta’s 2.7-mile streetcar line, built with initial outlays of almost $48 million in federal grants and matching city and local funds of $21.6 million (the total cost is now $98.9 million), isn’t the only one following Portland’s lead.
“There are going to be a number of streetcar systems, in Washington, D.C., Tucson, Dallas. Toronto has ordered new ones. Dubai is opening a new system about the same time as Atlanta that will be nine miles with a purpose that sounds just like the city of Atlanta — to alleviate traffic congestion. So we’re not alone in this. These systems are being opened everywhere, and most have expanding, huge ridership. I think it’s a good way for cities to become more modern.”
When the first streetcars roll onto Auburn Avenue sometime this summer, Borchers expects economic growth to follow. He also anticipates a less congested, less polluted central district, since estimates say the electric vehicles will replace about 177 automobiles.
“Everybody will use it — people driving in from the suburbs can park their cars and use the streetcar to get to major events in the city. Conventioneers can fly in, catch MARTA to the Peachtree Center station and use it to attend events or get to dinner. Walkability, environmental and developmental issues — these are the kinds of things streetcars tend to fix,” he said.
Borchers believes the streetcar’s allure will entice long-entrenched suburbanites out of their OTP enclaves to check out the sleek, state-of-the-art cars. “So when mom and dad come to visit, people won’t say, ‘There’s a diesel-driven bus, let’s go for a ride.’ It will be, ‘There’s a streetcar! Let’s go for a ride!’ Surveys show people prefer to ride rail vehicles. And I assure you, you will see a change. A streetcar can help change that.”
But Benita Dodd doesn’t think so. As vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, a research group, she focuses on transportation and is “astonished and disappointed” by what she sees as a waste of money.
“I am so disenchanted with the city’s focusing on a streetcar when there are more urgent transportation needs that would serve the people who really need transportation at a cost-effective price in their neighborhoods,” Dodd said. “When I look at this project, all I can see is the tourism aspect with some economic development.”
Dodd also objects to the streetcar’s fixed system in an area that’s already tight on space. “Now you’re taking up lanes and slowing down existing auto traffic,” she said. “Look at the streetcar itself: Its capability to take cars off the road assumes that the streetcar is filled to capacity and that everyone in it has a vehicle, yet 57 percent of those who live within a quarter mile of [it] don’t own a car.”
Borchers agrees that a bus could have been rolling sooner and at a lower cost. “But once you put federal money into the rails and infrastructure, you’ll find a major investment of private money following,” he said. “And the streetcar has other advantages: level boarding, step-on-step-off capability, wheelchair and bicycle access. We’ve learned just using the motorcar and closing things down [downtown] doesn’t work.”
Skeptics such as Dodd worry that the streetcar is an urban version of the “build it and they will come” concept.
“First of all, people have to buy into the idea that it’s going to bring people to the businesses nearby,” Dodd said. “I don’t see the area around the streetcar as ready for development at the moment, and I can predict right now that it’s going to fail, and they’ll say it’s because the development was not in place. … And let me point out: We are not anti-transit; we are pro-effective transit.”
Jennifer Ball, vice president of planning and economic development for Central Atlanta Progress (CAP) and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID), isn’t convinced that detractors like Dodd are pro-transit.
“I understand that some people are skeptics who don’t think the government should invest in projects like this,” she said. “A lot of them are people who don’t live downtown and who don’t have the same vision for the kind of neighborhood that has walkability, higher-density housing and mixed uses. But the community groups here want to see this happen and are behind it.”
Residents of the surrounding neighborhood, whose core will be traversed by the streetcar along Auburn and Edgewood avenues, do want the project to succeed. But Downtown Neighborhood Association President Kyle Kessler describes the enthusiasm as more akin to cautious optimism than streetcar devotion.
“For the most part, everybody’s hopeful that things will come back better than before — that’s been the big pitch and why ADID wants it to succeed,” said Kessler, an architect who lives in a Peachtree Street loft. “And we do, too, but it’s not so much a big deal from a transportation standpoint. We can walk, ride a bike, whatever. But nobody would want to walk under the [Downtown] Connector overpass, so now with the streetcar, folks who live here, office workers, visitors or Georgia State students can go to bars and restaurants on the east side without getting into a car.”
Kessler said locals aren’t put off by the streetcar’s solitary circle but are more focused on the economic benefits it might add to a district that more than a decade ago was abandoned by banks, businesses and major retailers.
“It doesn’t matter to us that it’s a small loop that doesn’t serve major job centers,” he said. “What does matter is that it’s something interesting that goes someplace different from MARTA and gets people to explore other parts of the city. We see it as an economic tool that will allow more development east and west so Atlanta isn’t just one stretch along Peachtree.”
While the streetcar’s economic development success will be measured carefully, Borchers said, the city will be considering how to expand it into links with other transit options, particularly those slated to run along the Beltline.
“The streetcar is just the first of a planned system,” Borchers said. “People think, ‘Well, it doesn’t help me,’ but if it doesn’t go exactly where you do now, it may in the future. Meanwhile, it’s going to take other cars off the road, and your commute’s going to be easier.”
David Sjoquist, an economics professor and holder of the Dan Sweat Chair at Georgia State’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, said expansion is key to making the streetcar a success.
“That’s very important because the metro area isn’t going to build its way out of its traffic problems by building more highways, especially in the inner core,” he said. “We’ve got to find something else. But it has to be the link to a comprehensive system of streetcars and light rail service that serves big venues, the places people want to go, so it’s transit you can really use. That’s going to take a long time, and you’ve got to start somewhere. ”
But before expansion becomes a reality, Sjoquist said the streetcar’s success will hinge on two factors that have yet to be decided: cost and management. The fare structure is still being studied and will need Atlanta City Council approval before being implemented. There’s also no word on which city entity will manage the operation.
Resident Kessler hopes the streetcar helps downtown redevelop in a way the Olympics and dot-com boom didn’t.
“I hope it will bring to downtown what people have been wanting for years and years,” he said.
Borchers is ready to get on board.
“As soon as it begins operating, I’ll be on it to shop at the Auburn market and do my drinking along the way.”
Pop-up shops PROGRAM
To kick-start the economic development effort associated with the new streetcar, Central Atlanta Progress has sponsored a “pop-up shop” program that cajoled property owners along the line into offering three months of rent-free space to business owners and entrepreneurs. CAP sweetened the deal by giving those owners $500 to prep the spaces and get them ready to open in June.
“Studies showed that there are 80 acres of vacant or underutilized land and 30 vacant buildings within a quarter mile of the streetcar,” Ball said. “Conditions in the area are very similar to the mid-’90s — the Olympic era — when buildings like Muse’s and the William Oliver were vacant, and developers could get them for cents on the dollar. The same thing is happening now. The apartments in the area are full, and the population in the area is right at 23,000 — not including the students in the Georgia State dorms. We’ve already started to see improvements, with 11 new restaurants opening in the corridor and the National Park Service renovating the historic Ebenezer Church [in the MLK Historic District].”
CAP recruited retail specialist KristiRooks to head the Downtown Pop-up Shops program, which matches would-be shop owners with the right space. More than 100 applications were scrutinized and so far, 17 have been approved. In the mix are stores for music, home furnishings, crafts, arts, bike tours, dog treats and socks.
“That’s a pretty significant story,” she said. “People are very excited about being part of the next big thing — the revitalization of downtown.”
Pop-up operators will have three- or four-month leases starting June 1. They’ll be responsible for utilities, insurance and staffing, and they’ll have the first option to stay on at the end of the lease.
“This program allows people to come downtown and test the market with no obligation to stay,” Rooks said. “It activates storefronts that are otherwise vacant, and it offers vibrant things for people to do as they are jumping off and on the streetcar.”
When I served four terms in the state Senate, one of the few places where you could go to always and get concrete information about real solutions was the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. That hasn’t changed. [The Foundation] is really right up there at the top of the state think tanks, so you should be very proud of the work that they are doing!