The New York Times quoted Foundation Vice President Benita Dodd in a January 1, 2016, article by Alan Blinder about the Atlanta Streetcar System. The full article is below; the link to the newspaper is here.
By Alan Blinder
ATLANTA — The streetcar was stopped in downtown traffic, and before long Keisha Schwarzel figured that was enough of a first experience with the year-old addition to Atlanta’s transit system.
“I’d rather walk,” Ms. Schwarzel, 35, said on a rain-drenched Wednesday morning.
And that was when the ride was free.
On Friday, looking beyond the setbacks that became grist for the mass-transit skeptics who populate the suburbs, Atlanta’s 2.7-mile, $98 million streetcar system began charging passengers for the first time. In this city of congestion and deepening ambitions for public transportation, the debut of fares — $1 per ride or $3 for a one-day pass — was expected to renew battle lines in the debate over how the metro area’s 5.6 million people should move.
“I think 2016 will be very revealing, and it will give us a very good indication of how the streetcar will be in the future,” said Felicia A. Moore, who was chairwoman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee for 2015. “At this point, the critics, I would say, are sort of emboldened by the performance that we’ve had so far.”
In the days before fares, supporters and critics acknowledged that the streetcar experience had so far been a humbling one for Atlanta, just one of the cities that have turned to a nostalgia-tinged transit option amid bountiful fanfare and mixed immediate results.
In the system’s first year, even as visitors welcomed the streetcars and praised them as effective, residents often described it as somewhere between disastrous and vaguely satisfactory. There were questions of technical know-how and management that provoked a letter from the Federal Transit Administration about its “concerns.” Ridership, estimated at about 900,000 trips, fell short of a forecast of 1.1 million passengers that boosters have now distanced themselves from. The homeless, some complained, had turned the streetcars into sleek-looking shelters.
“Every major system in the United States of America, certainly after a 50-year period of not having a streetcar, involves growing pains, and I think that we’re going through those,” said Mayor Kasim Reed, who estimated he had used the system perhaps 15 times. “But I certainly feel a smoothing-out after some real hurdles around the streetcar.”
Others do not share the confidence of the elected officials, business leaders and tourism executives who regard the streetcar as a showpiece for Atlanta and a catalyst for economic developments they estimate at $1.5 billion. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month described the economic claims as “overstated.”) Critics warn that the onset of a fare system will depress ridership even more.
They question whether the system can ever adequately serve this vast city, and they argue that streetcars needlessly clog the roadways that generally serve the cars and trucks on which the area has long relied.
“Whether you’re downtown as a resident or in the suburbs as a spectator, you see this as a colossal waste of taxpayer money,” said Benita Dodd, a streetcar critic who lives near Atlanta and is the vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. “They’re holding it up as the way of the future for the rest of metro Atlanta, and heaven forbid we should follow the example of the City of Atlanta on the streetcar.”
Atlanta is not the first city to struggle with streetcar service, a project here with stakes far beyond its startup costs, which were supported by a $47 million federal grant. The system was a subsidized bet that metro Atlanta, with its notorious interstates and limited rail system, would embrace a transit option that did not require new roads.
Some suggest that the first year’s experience does not say much about the system’s longterm prospects.
“There are very few products that are launched without issue,” said Daniel M. Tangherlini, who, as director of the transportation department in the District of Columbia, was an early champion of Washington’s long troubled streetcar system.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day — I hate to be that crass, but cities are a longterm investment.”
Streetcar boosters, who lament what they perceive as prematurely hostile coverage by news outlets and say they are encouraged by the first year’s ridership statistics, acknowledge that the existing route is insufficient. But they contend that proposed expansions in future decades would help the system appeal to more people than the visitors whose hotels are often near the current line.
“If you can make it bigger and it can reach more places that people are familiar with, it’s better,” said A.J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress, a nonprofit organization that promotes downtown.
“We’ve got 2.7 miles. A lot of people complain, ‘Oh, it doesn’t go close to me.’ Well, there was a finite amount of money that we had that we could spend, and this is the best route to prepare us for future expansion.”
That expansion is poised to go only so far. In a December vote that reflected at least a measure of urban unease, the City Council removed Buckhead, a popular retail and dining district, from a future streetcar service plan.
“The day may come when the public will support sharing precious Peachtree Road capacity with streetcars, but today isn’t it,” Howard Shook, a councilman who represents Buckhead, said in a statement.
Some streetcar supporters worry that the backlash might endanger Atlanta’s chances for federal government backed expansions, and figures like Mr. Robinson are counseling patience.
“We may not win the popularity contest in the first inning,” he said, “but I think by the bottom of the ninth, we hope to be in a different place.”
But Ms. Dodd predicted that the streetcar’s troubles would intensify. “We need to accept that this was a dismal failure and that once people actually have to start paying to ride it, we’ll see ridership plunge,” she said. “Let’s view this as a lesson, and let’s consider better options that don’t involve taking a lane away from the downtown roads.”
The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is a driving force for market-based solutions to policy challenges. The work done by this outstanding organization is making a real impact on the future of Georgia. I personally consider the Foundation a primary source for policy ideas. All Georgians are better off because the Foundation is helping lead the critical policy debates in our state.