Atlanta Streetcar’s Gone Off the Rails

By Benita M. Dodd

Benita Dodd

Since the day it went into service on December 30, 2014, the Atlanta Streetcar has been nothing but consistent. It opened over deadline and over budget and its performance has been astoundingly underwhelming, yet city officials continue to explore expansion.

The project was scheduled to start service in early 2013; it opened in late December 2014. It was projected to cost $72 million, including a $47.7 million TIGER II grant from the federal government. Costs ballooned to $99 million, according to city officials.

That was the city’s cost estimate. Not known is the cost to the numerous companies who expected reimbursement for having to relocate utilities along the 2.7-mile route; a Fulton County judge rejected AT&T’s lawsuit seeking $5.8 million in reimbursement. For comparison, the city of Cincinnati resisted all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court but was ordered to reimburse Duke Energy $15 million for relocating utilities to make way for Cincinnati’s 3.6-mile streetcar route.

The operations and maintenance budget for the first year was projected at $1.7 million; in fact, the city reported actual spending of $2.47 million in fiscal year 2015. It was $4.8 million in FY 2016 and $6.2 million in FY 2017. For FY 2018, O&M costs were $5.6 million. In July 2018, MARTA took over operations from the city of Atlanta. For its first year through May, MARTA reported O&M costs of about $3 million.  

The city’s “Funding Application Project Narrative” in 2010 noted that 12 million people visit Atlanta annually for the attractions, concerts and sporting events, and another 4.7 million tourists and 1.38 million conventioneers visit Downtown Atlanta. Yet, during the 2019 Super Bowl and 2018 College National Championships, there was no Streetcar service.

Despite original estimates projecting 2,600 weekday riders, daily ridership was below 600 for FY 2019.  In the first year, when the Streetcar was free, ridership reached around 600,000; it plummeted once the dollar fare took effect. Since MARTA took over, ridership plunged further: For FY 2019, according to MARTA’s preliminary numbers, just 207,321 people rode the train. Even fewer riders paid the dollar fare. Through May, fares brought in $125,014 from 189,571 riders – nowhere near the 20% projected farebox recovery ($600,000) to fund the year’s $3 million in operations and maintenance.

Why rehash the dismal performance of the Streetcar? The Atlanta Streetcar has not delivered as promised and never will. This sleek, beautiful exterior hides rows and rows of empty seats as it parades through Downtown Atlanta. Worse than that, it gobbles money that could be used elsewhere to provide transit where it is more effective, efficient and needed.

The emperor has no clothes, but Atlanta refuses to admit it. For that, Atlanta’s transit users, motorists and taxpayers will continue to be on the hook as MARTA and city officials double down. Atlanta has massive plans to expand the Streetcar route as part of a $2.6 billion transit expansion, which, of course, will include a request for more federal taxpayer dollars on top of 2016’s voter-approved sales tax.

While the Streetcar crawls through Downtown empty, thousands of people happily pay to use the ubiquitous dockless e-scooters; many pedestrians beat the Streetcar, and rideshare services are taking people exactly where they want to be.

Critics of the Streetcar are vilified as anti-transit. Far from it. Atlanta and its residents deserve better – better transit and better use of tax dollars. The city gave up on streetcars in 1949. Sensible people must call out the social engineers insisting on Flintstone transit in a Jetsons era.  

Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (August 2, 2019). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.

4 thoughts on “Atlanta Streetcar’s Gone Off the Rails

  1. Great article that needs to be read by all citizens of Atlanta. The City Government is easily bought off by sellers of street cars and our money for transit is wasted on these items not used. Atlanta streets are strewn with pot holes that slow down traffic and damage our cars. Better use of tax dollars is to repair our streets and use technology to improve traffic light control.

  2. Great article that points out waste of tax dollars on fixed rail street cars that carry passengers to places they don’t want to go. Atlanta streets are strewn with potholes that slow traffic and damage cars. Spend transit tax dollars on street repair and traffic control that can be adjusted to cars on the roads.

    James H. Rust, engineering prof. (ret. Georgia Tech)

  3. Ms. Dodd: Good one — you nailed it.
    Of course, in government transportation, nothing succeeds like total failure. While it is very doubtful that anyone in a responsible position will entertain for an instant doing the obvious, namely shutting down this mistake as soon as possible, perhaps, this will at least slow down the push to extent the Atlanta Streetcar, and other ill-advised Atlanta transit “improvements,” and serve as a caution for the other cities that are lining up to drink the streetcar Kool-Aid.
    For heavens sake, if there appears to be a reason to look at short-route circulator transportation, think of shuttle buses — and, if it is absolute essential to have that throwback look, investigate replica trolleys. For well under ten percent of the cost of one streetcar line, a city can easily have triple the rubber tire vehicles on triple the routes carrying triple the ridership in one third of the time to getting service started.
    Of course, as you have pointed out so well, short-distance shared travel is changing very rapidly, for the better and, perhaps, we will hear less of nineteenth century transportation “solutions” for the twenty-first century. Can we finally reject the call of “yesterday’s transportation tomorrow?”

    1. Thank you for reading, Mr. Rubin. Sadly, every time I pen one of these, I’m accused of being anti-transit instead of being anti-boondoggles.

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