October 16, 2023
Downtown Streetcar to Ponce? A Recantation
By Mike Dobbins
Jan. 12 – I first rode the Downtown Streetcar back in 2014, soon after the full loop had been completed. I live downtown, and a friend who occasionally rode the streetcar to the Auburn Curb Market suggested I give it a try.
I boarded at the Peachtree and Ellis stop with the idea of doing the full two-mile roundtrip. The two-car streetcar was empty of passengers, but its driver and conductor were welcoming, the car was clean, comfortable, air-conditioned, quiet, and with good views of downtown. Contrasting with downtown hurly-burly, the experience was peaceful and serene. I had the place to myself, a refuge from daily life.
Every few months since, on a whim or in need of a bit of peace, I have returned to the streetcar to see how it’s doing. The experience has been about the same, occasionally shared with another passenger or two, one couple wondering if they could get to Smyrna. Despite the pleasant experience the Streetcar provides, however, as a transportation planner I marveled at the decisions made to build it in the first place.
In the wake of the Great Recession, in 2009 the Congress enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, one feature of which was the provision of funding for “shovel-ready” transit projects.
At the time, the city, under the mayoralty of Kasim Reed, decided to plan and develop a transit project to take advantage of the funding availability. Far from having any shovel-ready projects, the city ginned up the Downtown Streetcar.
At the time, MARTA was the transit agency serving the city. It was not enthusiastic about the merits of the streetcar idea. The Atlanta BeltLine, having ginned up its own plan to build streetcars, first a 22 mile ring around, but not to, major destinations. Then to connect to destinations, they developed a 51 mile streetcar network plan. The BeltLine, however, with no transit experience and little transit expertise, had yet to actually build a single foot of streetcar track, (and never has). So the city decided to go it alone, starting from scratch, to plan, design, build, and operate the Downtown Streetcar. Which it did, for a while, ineptly, until MARTA took it over in 2018.
Ridership is the main measure of success for a transit system, both in terms of serving people most in need of access and in generating revenues sufficient to leverage additional funding. Ridership depends on connecting people from where they are to where they need or want to go. The Downtown Streetcar plan (and indeed the 22 mile BeltLine loop) failed to recognize this nexus between “origins” and “destinations.” The Streetcar had lots of destinations, but few origins, thus has gone through now eight years of puny ridership.
For years, watching the massive growth of both origins (homes) and destinations (employment centers) around the BeltLIne’s east side trail, I have advocated for connecting the Downtown Streetcar to the Ponce City Market area. The idea has been to add significantly to the Streetcar’s ridership, thus its usefulness, by getting people to where they want to go.
Now, after reviewing and visiting MARTA’s plan to make that connection, I have to RECANT. The BeltLine trail on the east side has become a treasured community asset. It is likely to only gain in popularity as other segments of the trail underway hook up with it. Its very popularity, however, has brought stresses not anticipated in the plans to connect the BeltLine to the Downtown Streetcar. Patterns of use and development are now long established. Responding to popular demand, the priority need now is to widen the walking trail, add a separated riding trail, and damp down the need for transit space. (See a newly proposed plan here.) The land necessary to accomplish the proposed plan is presently tied up in the right-of-way reserved for the two-track streetcar. Building that link now would destroy much of the use patterns, the attraction, the functionality, and the future of the asset the trail has become.
Given the recent failure of elements of the streetcars wheel carriage systems and the crumbling of some of its concrete track beds, as reported Dec. 12, 2022 by masstransitmag.com, a trade publication, the future soundness of the streetcar system is in question. It would seem that now is the time to abandon the streetcar’s connection to the Ponce area and maybe abandon it altogether. Instead, why not make the downtown-Ponce connection by extending the route of the current interim bussing system to the Ponce area? Ride on existing streets to lessen impacts on residences and built-in BeltLine-dependent activities. In any event, DO NOT build a two-track streetcar line between the King Center and the Ponce area.