Transit relic won’t help transportation

This op-ed appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on January 28, 2014.

By Benita Dodd

Watching the evolving justification for the Atlanta Streetcar project’s benefits is like watching a shell game. It’s anybody’s guess what reason will turn up next: mobility, congestion relief, economic development, environmental benefits or tourism. Only the naïve would place a bet.

Back when it applied for a $47 million federal grant for the streetcar, the city predicted that “automobile trips will be diverted to the safer streetcar mode, which will thereby reduce accidents and increase pedestrian safety because more travelers will be using the streetcar instead of traveling by automobile.” (The application also admitted that more than 57 percent of the people within a quarter-mile of the streetcar route don’t have a vehicle.)

The streetcar could possibly turn out to be a tourist attraction, but it is impractical as a mode of transportation. It’s disingenuous for proponents to describe the project as “a critical piece of Atlanta’s transit puzzle … [with] a ripple effect that can influence developments elsewhere across the region,” as the project Web site proclaims. The city is romanticizing the past.

If they made sense, streetcars would be thriving and locally funded. There’s a reason these boondoggles are relegated to history and local governments reach for federal (taxpayer) handouts. They’re slow and expensive, with infrequent trips and frequent stops. Inconvenient too.

A fixed guideway handicaps the lane. In Atlanta, where an existing lane is being converted, the vehicles are projected to run 15 minutes apart at an average speed of 10 miles per hour and without exclusive right of way. It will make 12 stops along the 2.7 mile route (1.3 miles one way). Not only is this slow, it also slows other vehicles in the busy lane – and stop-and-go traffic increases auto emissions.

The city optimistically projects 2,600 weekday riders for the streetcar line, which is expected to open in May. Utilities are still tallying the costs of massive infrastructure relocation and negotiating who’ll pay for that. Construction has inconvenienced retailers, motorists and bus passengers, whose bus stops were moved. Schedule delays and cost overruns continue; the project cost, which started out at about $69 million, is expected to top $100 million.

The streetcar web site says, “We are all in this together, and the Atlanta Streetcar is a critical first step in an exciting new age for transportation across our region.”

Voters understand the need to fund congestion relief and mobility; taxpayers and commuters want to improve transportation. But they expect sound transportation policy. Streetcars are neither smart nor visionary. Atlanta is committing transportation funds to a transit relic; bus service (which has struggled in the corridor) – even shuttle service – would have improved mobility and provided flexibility at a far lower cost.

Once you’ve committed to a federally funded project it’s hard to admit failure. Other governments worth their salt will give serious consideration to the economics and effectiveness of the streetcar project and tell Atlanta, “Thanks, but no thanks. You’re on your own.”

Link to Atlanta Journal-Constitution article:

Benita Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.