I have been a devoted MARTA rider for more than 30 years. As a young reporter, I was on one the first trains to connect the city to the airport.
When relatives visit, I force them onto MARTA to ballgames and Lenox just to show them how cool it is. Generally, they indulge me patiently and only occasionally wonder aloud if it wouldn’t be easier to drive.
When my Dallas family came for the Super Bowl in 1994, I wowed them with the marvel of our advanced train system as proof of the superiority of my adopted hometown. (Since then, Dallas’s football team and mass transit have moved in opposite directions — lousy team, great rail system.)
I even love MARTA buses. The Nos. 36, 6 and 2 are wonderfully familiar circuits to me: I have spent hours on sturdy coaches trudging contentedly through the traffic, occasionally peering over my book, newspaper or, eventually, iPad, to sneer at the fools in their cars.
I’ve double-dated on MARTA, limiting our choices of restaurants to those within walking distance of train stations. (Yes, she’s a patient and saintly woman.) For a few years I lived near London, and would glide into Waterloo Station on a commuter train and then switch to the vast and heady network of the Tube to finish my journey.
Then there’s the Atlanta streetcar. Transit nerd that I am, I geeked out when I first saw its blue, slim form. One hot summer Sunday last year I forced my wife to spend a Sunday on a streetcar outing to downtown, visiting our bricks at Centennial Olympic Park and then taking in the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
It was all so perfect — except for the streetcar. The poor, beautiful thing trundled slowly through town, a great whale trapped in a narrow river. Bicycles whizzed by. Its riders, a mix of locals and confused tourists, patiently endured its glacial progress. Why would any of them ever take it again?
As we rushed breathlessly from the civil rights museum to one of the streetcar’s rare scheduled stops near the Olympic park, I felt my own faith sagging.
Meanwhile, the public record of the streetcar’s cost and performance has filled my newspaper’s pages and fueled the widespread sense that we have a white elephant on our hands. And if the streetcar loses people like me, how must it seem to people with more-rational views of transit?
To find out, I emailed my former colleague, Benita Dodd, who left the newspaper some years ago to work at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. To be sure, her group is fiscally conservative and no fan of big public projects (I’m not sure they are wild about ANY public spending.)
Perhaps predictably, Benita said the thing was a dumb idea from day one.
“The first mistake the city made was asking the federal government for the $47 million grant to implement outdated technology,” she said, coldly enough.
In her view, things went downhill from there, from mere dumb idea to cautionary tale.
“It started out as $67 million and at last count was $98 million to $100 million, due to cost and schedule overruns and ‘unforeseen’ issues like utility relocation,” she said. “The cost estimate, I maintain, is vastly understated.”
This is the kind of project that quickens the pulse of folks who dislike government spending on such projects.
Not only has the streetcar been expensive, it hasn’t done much good, she argues. “Nobody’s riding it, but the mayor wants to continue expanding the line. Nothing says failure like failing big.”
When it was free, ridership was 800,000 a year, but it plummeted — maybe by half — once riders were charged $1 to board.
Benita can go on and on, but you get the point. The streetcar is excellent grist for her mill.
So, I emailed one of the project’s biggest fans, A. J. Robinson, whose job and passion join in a seeming unbridled love for the central city. He loved downtown when there wasn’t much to love and as head of Central Atlanta Progress feels hugely vindicated by all the good he sees around him these days.
When I approached him via email about to ask about the streetcar, he wondered if I had joined the legion of “haters.”
Well, kinda. But I was a reluctant hater. He agreed to chat by phone.
A.J. argued that that everyone was looking at the project through the “wrong lens.”
“The lens needs to change on how we are valuing this infrastructure,” he argued. “This is a long-term play.”
Many people have a hard time seeing the value in any public investment that doesn’t provide an immediate return – and for transportation projects this means improving their commute. “It was never about that,” he said. “It was about building neighborhood infrastructure – connecting east to west.”
The benefits will take time to realize. “People want immediate gratification,” he said. “We’re spending a billion dollars on that interchange up by you (the one at Ga. 400 and I-285) and what’s the success metric there?” he said.
The streetcar is a part of what he sees as a fresh vision of Atlanta’s future, one that is less about automobiles and more about transit and walking. “You’re betting on a different future of what Atlanta is going to look like,” he said. “That’s the basis of why many of us have supported it.”
I like that vision of Atlanta. But I worry that this project could raise too many doubts about our competence to produce such a city.
A.J. allows that the streetcar must expand — and soon — beyond its 2.7-mile loop. “It’s limited, yes,” he said. “It’s slow, but we’re working on it.”
But he says that the project must be viewed with patience. “The right lens is from the long term,” he said.
“For 40 years of MARTA’s existence no one wanted to be near MARTA stations, now everyone wants to be near MARTA,” he says, noting the streetcar cars are designed to last 30 years.
So, let’s just chill _ until 2046.