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Atlanta Hopes a Three-Mile Streetcar Route Will Help Foster a New Urban Image

December 31,2014

via The New York Times

By Alan Blinder

ATLANTA — Pushing aside years of funding problems and construction dilemmas, this city on Tuesday opened a small loop of a transportation option that last operated here more than six decades ago: streetcars.

Although the electric streetcars, condemned by some as a $98 million gimmick, will not relieve Atlanta’s traffic woes as they glide across nearly three miles of track, the system is part of a broader strategy that supporters contend will help remake a city long regarded as something less than an archetype of urban design. It also gives Atlanta a place on the expanding list of cities that, backed by millions of dollars from the federal government, recently have constructed streetcar networks.

“These are not projects for right now,” said Keith T. Parker, the chief executive of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority. “These are projects for the future, and when you look around, the cities who we’re competing with around this nation and around the world, they’ve made investments in public transportation.”

Whether the streetcars will ever become moving landmarks of Atlanta, as they are in New Orleans and San Francisco, may not be known for decades. But they are already a faint throwback in a state where historians say every major city once had streetcars.

“They were hugely significant in the physical growth of Atlanta,” said Clifford M. Kuhn, an associate professor of history at Georgia State University. “They were widely used. The mayor of Atlanta in the early 20th century would ride to work in the streetcar.”

The streetcars were also commanding forces in matters of race and labor. One of Georgia’s first Jim Crow laws, Professor Kuhn said, targeted black streetcar passengers.

But with the rise in popularity of buses, the streetcar age faded in Georgia, and the last Atlanta line shut down in 1949.

The new system, more than a year behind schedule and part of a plan that ultimately calls for a broader network of streetcar and light rail lines, is for now a very limited one. The route includes access to downtown attractions like Centennial Olympic Park, which is within walking distance of the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coca-Cola, and it slopes eastward toward the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site. Along the way, passengers can stop near certain hotels or at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, a popular collection of fresh food dealers and restaurant outposts.

But the existing network does not venture near Piedmont Park or Buckhead, Atlanta’s premier retail district. The historic Fox Theater is not along the route, nor is the High Museum of Art. And the streetcar does not reach the Georgia Institute of Technology or the Atlanta University Center, although there is a stop at Georgia State University, which had a fall semester enrollment of more than 32,000 students.

Mayor Kasim Reed said he intends to lengthen the streetcar route and reduce wait times, but he also said it had become critical to begin operations after the project’s opening date was postponed from 2013.

“The first thing that we had to do, really, was to get the streetcar up and running because the delays were shaking the confidence in the project, and we needed to put that to bed,” said Mr. Reed, who described Tuesday as a “historic” day in the city.

Although the streetcar system opened as Georgia prepared for another debate about its transportation troubles, the route will have little effect on the gridlock that torments this metropolitan area of 5.5 million people, most of whom live outside Atlanta’s city limits. (The Census Bureau estimated that Atlanta’s 2013 population was nearly 448,000 people.)

The inability of the streetcar system to cure the congestion has been the foundation for measured concerns here.

“The streetcar just goes round and round,” said C. T. Martin, a member of the City Council. “At best, it’s a tourist attraction, but it doesn’t touch the bigger issue of regional transportation.”

Still, Mr. Martin, who described the system as a “novelty” that might attract residents for that very reason, also said there were “a lot of opportunities for it to grow and prove its worth.”

Streetcar supporters were quick to dismiss any misgivings.

“To all of those who may still have a slight doubt of the significance of the Atlanta streetcar, I say to you, frankly, ‘We did not build it for you,’ ” said A. J. Robinson, the president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. “We are building it because Atlanta is in a global competition for attracting future human capital. This beginning step of streetcar infrastructure is a critical tool in that competition.”

For passengers, the streetcars, which are expected to carry about 2,600 people each weekday, appeared to be both an economic advancement and a neighborhood improvement.

“You can’t live in your city if you can’t get places,” Tova Baruch, 40, said as she waited at the Woodruff Park stop and talked of walking to the system from her home in the Cabbagetown neighborhood.

And a comedian who appears in a streetcar safety video, Jessica (It’s All Good) Williams, said after a ribbon cutting Tuesday that the city had needed a new transit option.

“If we’re going to have bad traffic, we might as well have something cool and cute that makes us look like the rest of the world, right?” Ms. Williams, 29, said. “There’s plenty of other cities that are doing so much better. Why? It’s because of their transportation. It’s about time that we catch up.”