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Thursday, October 21, 2010

Atlanta Awarded $47M For Streetcar Project: Badly Needed But Not In Charlotte!

Rep. Lewis: U.S. DOT Will Fund Atlanta Streetcar Project

Sixty-one years after the last Streetcars rolled in Atlanta, they're coming back.

In a coup for the city, the U.S. Department of Transportation has agreed to grant Atlanta$47 million for its proposed $72 million downtown east-west Streetcar project, according to U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta and Mayor Kasim Reed.

Lewis' office said he got confirmation of the award in a conversation with DOT Secretary Ray LaHood on Friday morning.

With the grant, which the Obama administration has not confirmed, the competing visions of American transportation held by the Obama and Bush administrations are playing out in stark contrast in metro Atlanta.

President George W. Bush's Transportation Department focused on roads and traffic. It used grant money to push electronic tolling as a key answer to intractable U.S. traffic congestion, and one of those seed projects is being installed on I-85 in Gwinnett County.

In contrast, the Obama administration, while continuing to fund road projects, has tried to make a mark in passenger rail. It has broadened the focus of transportation funding requirements toward sustainability and economic development, hoping mass transit projects will re-shape cities into denser development in a longer-term attack on congestion.

Each hoped their seed project would spur development of a metrowide network.

The Atlanta streetcar project will run between tourist stops from the Martin Luther King Jr. center on the east and Centennial Olympic Park, with its access to CNN Center and the Georgia Aquarium, on the west. But that doesn't mean it's just a tourism project, said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a downtown self-taxing business group that will help fund the project. It's a transportation project important to local travelers, too, he said.

"It’s all of those. It is definitely economic development for sure," Robinson said, adding it will also serve employment centers downtown and Georgia State University students and staff, and link to current and future mass transit stops like MARTA and the Beltline.

Luz Borrero, the city's deputy chief operating officer, echoed those comments, adding that it would serve Grady Memorial Hospital and Peachtree Center, which is both an office complex and MARTA station.

Local residents had mixed reaction. Some along the project corridor were ecstatic.

On Auburn Avenue, Wellington Howard said he foresaw the federal approval. "I heard the (streetcar) bell this morning in my dreams," said Howard, who has owned Georgia Insurance Brokers for more than 40 years. “It will help the neighborhood on its upclimb.”

Some responding to the news on and by Twitter called it frivolous, misguided and a waste of money. Kay Matthews of Chamblee said it was "ridiculous" to fund the streetcar while MARTA had just cut more than 10 percent of its service.

The grants come from a $600 million pool called TIGER II designed to upgrade transportation networks and create jobs. Georgia has several other applications in the ring, including road and mass transit work. The state has asked for $50 million for a $129 million project to build the Jimmy DeLoach Parkway serving the coastal ports area. It also asked for $37.5 million to serve as an interest payment toward $375 million federally assisted loan for the $1 billion project to add optional toll lanes along I-75 and I-575. Douglas County applied for $12.3 million for a $16 million extension of Lee Road.

On the mass transit side, the state asked for $1 million in planning grants for a downtown Atlanta passenger terminal.

A spokeswoman for the Georgia DOT said the state had not heard anything about the grants.

For those who read tea leaves, there was a good omen for the city of Macon. Macon and Georgians for Passenger Rail applied for about $1.9 million to help plan a commuter rail line between Atlanta and Macon, said Gordon Kenna, CEO of the passenger rail group. On Friday, LaHood is expected to address a mass transit conference there. A spokeswoman for the U.S. DOT said the winner announcements would come next week.

Macon is in the district of U.S. Rep. Jim Marshall, a Democrat who is in a difficult re-election battle.

Federal, state and local officials are planning a press conference on Wednesday in Atlanta to formally announce the streetcar funding and give the latest details about the project, according to Lewis.

The grant rewards years of work by Atlanta officials to bring streetcars back, revive mass transit, and, they hope, provide an economic development engine to a downtown area that faltered with the rise of highways and suburban commutes.

Reed and former Mayor Shirley Franklin seemed to stake their claims to credit.

"What we changed is, I followed the plan to Washington," Reed said. “I don’t want to say the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but the squeaky wheel gets grease." Franklin congratulated him and others in an e-mail she titled "EUREKA!" -- and noted that he "picked up the baton."

Reed said the project would transform downtown. His office has estimated the project would create 5,200 jobs over 20 years and would not only help ease downtown traffic problems but also help the city compete for more tourism and convention business.

“I see this as a marriage,” said Reed, who withdrew the Beltline's application for the grant program in order to focus on one project. “Because without something to pour into, where does the Beltline go? It’s a little choo-choo train going around and around and around. So there has to be something that brings it into the heart of the city.”

In the early 20th century, Atlantans owned fewer cars, with many instead getting around on a sprawling network of streetcars. Although the network's heart resided in a tangle of routes on Peachtree Street, this project does not include a significant Peachtree Street leg.

Without the Peachtree leg, it is far more modest than the $298 million application that failed in February.

The $47 million award for the streetcar project is less than the $56 million Atlanta applied for in August. Making the project finance work will depend on the city council's approval of an extra $5.6 million toward the project, Borrero said, beyond the $10 million the city already pledged. In addition, $2.8 million will be shifted within the city budget to streetcar-related projects. Borrero said that the shifted money was originally budgeted for transportation-related projects within the same corridor, so no area would lose out on project money.

Robinson's group, the downtown self-taxing business district, will contribute $6 million toward the capital costs of the project, and will help fund the $1.7 million annual operating costs. Passenger fares from an estimated 2,600 weekday ridership and advertising revenues would also contribute to operations.

Borrero said the city pared its request in recent days in talks with federal officials. She said the city council, which approved funds for the original application, had not yet considered the request for additional money.

"We did not know what degree of success this proposed approach would have, but we knew that if we were successful as we have been that we would have an opportunity to demonstrate to the members of the the city council that leveraging a $45 million investment against a smaller increase in our local match would be definitely a worthwhile and absolutely outstanding opportunity," Borrero said.

City Council President Ceasar Mitchell said he was not sure what funding source the council would approve, but it was important to try to find the extra money.

City officials have been pursuing the funding for the streetcar line for months. Lewis, along with Reed, met with and had conference calls with DOT Secretary LaHood as recently as a few days ago.

How a Streetcar rolls:

- In the same lane with cars.

- Stops at stoplights.

- Has its own stops.

- Probably has one electric line overhead.

Is Now The Time To Launch A Streetcar In Charlotte, NC?

In Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the viewer must grapple with reoccurring themes of fantasy and reality, as seen by Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. Much of Blanche’s life is posturing to cover up reality. At one point she exclaims, “I don’t want realism, I want magic.” Like Blanche Dubois, our mayor, through his Democratic majority on council, is hoping to perform a magic trick on the voters.

In 2007 voters reaffirmed their support for the use of a half-cent sales tax to support and expand our bus and rail network. Citizens also affirmed their support of a regional body, the Metropolitan Transit Commission. The objective of the MTC is to promote a regional vision and a regional approach to transit.

On Nov. 15, 2006, the MTC adopted a 2030 Transit Corridor System Plan that ranked its priorities: complete the light rail to UNC Charlotte; build a commuter line to north Mecklenburg and then begin on the streetcar.

Soon after, a stark reality became known to the MTC and council: the sales tax revenue stream would not be able to support building and running the desired streetcar under the original timeline.

This was recently reaffirmed to The Observer by Carolyn Flowers, CEO of the Charlotte Area Transit System.

The City Council commissioned a consultant to study the potential economic impact of the Streetcar. That April 2009 report showed that the economic impact to east and west Charlotte would be less than a third of what we’ve seen in the south corridor. The consultant delivered the most important dose of reality: The only way to pay for a streetcar would be through federal grants and additional City of Charlotte tax revenue.

The second part of this drama began with the prospect of an Obama presidency. Rumors of a federal Urban Circulator Grant gave Charlotte hopes it might be eligible for a streetcar grant. With this teaser opportunity, the majority on council pushed ahead without addressing the revenue dilemma. Then, on the night before the Charlotte city primary, Democrats by one vote overrode an appropriate veto by then-Mayor Pat McCrory to fund engineering studies for $4.5 million. Again, the fantasy continued, despite fiscal reality.

This leads to the next act: Charlotte has received a $25 million grant to build a $37 million, 1.5-mile segment, a corridor now serving 950 riders on two bus routes. Not exactly the area that needs the most help or has the best potential for new jobs and economic development. The vast majority of land along this leg is owned by the government or Central Piedmont Community College. Rather than using a streetcar that looks like cars on the light rail line, we’ll recycle our novelty trolley cars. The $12 million construction gap will be funded in part with a “reserves for economic development initiatives fund.” Translation: DEBT.

The approximate $1.5 million operating costs would come from the general fund. Clearly, this would use money we could spend on other priorities such as public safety and roads.

Like the voters of Charlotte, council members Warren Cooksey, Andy Dulin, and I support expanding mass transit, which includes the streetcar. However, we must do so within our half-cent sales tax revenue stream. We do not believe we should break our promise to the voters and leapfrog the MTC’s priorities. Doing so not only loses the voters’ trust but jeopardizes Charlotte’s ability to address core responsibilities. Further, a city-initiated streetcar risks creating a project that could compete with CATS for future federal funding.

We must continue to fight for our fair share of federal and state dollars to help us complete our regional transit system. However, we must do so with one regional voice.

The more reality sinks in, the more the voters will realize no magic is going to make the streetcar appear.

It’s time for an intermission, before this potentially tragic play squelches our city’s successes in mass transit . At the citizens’ forum at Monday’s City Council meeting, ask Mayor Anthony Foxx and your Democratic council members to reject this grant.

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Sources: Atlanta Journal Constitution,, McClatchy Newspapers, The Meck Deck, U.S. Dept Of Transportation, WCNC, Google Maps

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