Atlanta lands $47.6 million DOT grant for streetcars; at 'vanguard of renaissance'

The city of Atlanta has won a $47.6 million from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation to fund a modern streetcar system linking business and tourism highlights.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

U.S. Department of Transportation secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday awarded the city of Atlanta a $47.6 million grant to fund streetcars.

The funding, which comes from the DOT's TIGER II program, will go toward a modern, ADA-compliant streetcar system. The $47.6 million was part of a pool of approximately $585 million in discretionary TIGER II federal grant dollars divided among roughly 80 communities.

"[The project] keeps us competitive with other similar cities by improving our regional transit connectivity, boosting our billion dollar tourism industry, helping local businesses...and building a more sustainable future,” Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed said in a statement.

The first phase of the infrastructure project will run for 2.62 miles in Atlanta's downtown corridor, east to west from Peachtree Street to Sweet Auburn Avenue, linking its business, tourism and convention destinations. The entire plan calls for 12 stops, as well as direct transfer to the city's MARTA rail service at the Peachtree Center rail station.

The streetcars will be compatible with the MARTA Breeze fare system.

LaHood said in a statement that the grant puts Atlanta "at the vanguard of America's streetcar renaissance," and makes sense for a city where the personal car rules the road.

Why the streetcar and not a bus or rail solution? Officials outlined the following reasons:

  • Streetcars are best for short-distance transit service, in contrast to existing longer-distance services provided by MARTA rail and express bus operations
  • Streetcars are greener. The modern streetcar has less noise and fewer emissions than a bus, and streetcars can move more people with fewer vehicles on the street, especially in tandem with a bus system.
  • Streetcars are economic drivers, helping push neighborhood revitalization.
  • Streetcars are a safe bet. Businesses are more willing to invest along a fixed-route streetcar than along a bus route than can be altered or discontinued.

Atlanta, like many other American cities before the second World War, had an extensive streetcar system. Tire and fuel rationing helped Atlanta's streetcar system succeed during the war, but by 1949, the system was entirely replaced with trackless trolleys -- buses that draw electric power from overhead wires. Rails were removed or paved over, the streetcars were scrapped, and that was the end of it.

Now, Atlanta joins Dallas, Charlotte, Little Rock, Memphis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Portland, Tampa, San Francisco and Seattle at the urban light rail and streetcar party.

Albuquerque, Miami, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. also have plans for similar systems.

Design and construction for phase one of the project is expected to take two years. Construction is slated to begin in 2012 and service in 2013.

"The addition of the streetcar is exactly what Atlanta needs to remain competitive with our peer cities," said Midtown Alliance CEO Susan Mendheim in a statement. "It will enhance mobility, connect people to MARTA trains and further encourage smart, transit-friendly growth."

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