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The Atlanta Streetcar and Revitalization of Sweet Auburn’s “Main Street”

February 4,2015

via National Main Street Center

by Jennifer Ball

After six years of planning and two years of construction, the Atlanta Streetcar opened to passenger service and welcomed thousands of expectant riders on December 30th.  The initial ‘Downtown Loop’ route connects the Centennial Olympic Park area - home to the Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, the Georgia World Congress Center and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights - to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. In between and along the 2.7 track miles and 12 stops, the route traverses the Fairlie-Poplar and Sweet Auburn historic districts, Peachtree Street and Georgia State University’s campus, among other destinations.  The Atlanta Streetcar connects directly to MARTA at the Peachtree Center rail station. 

Key characteristics of the system include:

•    Vehicle:  a modern electric streetcar made by Siemens with an overhead power system (single trolley wire) that operates on-street in lanes shared with other traffic

•    Frequency: service will operate with a 15-minute frequency (average)

•    Hours: service will operate 7 days a week; 5:00 am to 11:00 pm weekdays, 8:30 am to 11:00 pm Saturdays, and 9:00 am to 10:30 pm Sundays

•    Fares:  free for the first 3 months, $1.00 per trip after that and compatible with Breeze smart-card technology

    Ridership: 2,600 riders per average weekday are projected

•    Maintenance: a vehicle maintenance facility has been built along the route under the Interstate 75/85 bridge at Auburn and Edgewood avenues

•    Enhancements: the project resulted in the conversion of Luckie Street to two-way traffic, the addition of one-way paired bike lanes on Auburn and Edgewood avenues, sidewalk improvements at stop locations and the upgrade of water lines in the corridor associated with the Clean Water Atlanta program

•    Capital Funding: the total $99 million capital cost to deliver the Atlanta Streetcar includes:
      o    $47.6 million in TIGER II Federal Transit Administration grant funds 
      o    $32.6 million from the City of Atlanta via bond funding and the Department of Watershed Management
      o    $6 million from the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District
      o    $11.34 million from the Atlanta Regional Commission Livable Centers Initiative Program through three separate grants for related roadway, bicycle and sidewalk enhancement projects
      o    $1.2 million from the Westside and Eastside Tax Allocation Districts

•    Annual Operations: Operational funds are committed for 20 years and will be covered by fare box revenue, advertising, federal grant funds, ADID contributions and City of Atlanta car rental and hotel motel tax proceeds.

•    Governance:  a collaborative public-private partnership guided by a tri-party Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the City of Atlanta, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID), and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA).

A key goal of the Atlanta Streetcar is to attract investment to and revitalize the neighborhoods along the streetcar alignment.  As identified through initial planning and documented in the TIGER II funding application, over 80 acres of land and 30 buildings and structures within two blocks of the proposed route are considered underutilized. The City of Atlanta aims to leverage the federal and municipal investment in the Atlanta Streetcar by encouraging redevelopment along the route.

The Sweet Auburn neighborhood is a particular focus of these efforts.  A community-based economic development initiative has been organized to help support and guide this work.  Sweet Auburn Works, Inc. (SAW) has based its operational structure on the National Main Street Center “Main Street” model and seeks to lead revitalization efforts to achieve a thriving commercial district by partnering with neighborhood property and business owners, the City of Atlanta, Central Atlanta Progress and other public and private agencies.

SAW is incorporated with the State of Georgia, is a 501(c)3 organization, has an engaged and committed Board of Directors, has active committees and over 40 community leader volunteers.  SAW envisions a dynamic, revitalized Sweet Auburn community, firmly rooted in the historic Auburn district experience while going forward into the 21st century with a vibrant business and entertainment district and rich and diverse community. The organization has identified the key to the community’s future strength as the generation of public and private investment to make Auburn Avenue a premier destination for tourism and trade, entertainment, and cultural exchange for all ethnic and national groups. This can be done by capitalizing on Sweet Auburn’s historical association with the international civil rights movement, as well as with creative approaches to the preservation and commemoration of historic facilities, events and leadership in many areas of the African-American experience.

These “Main Street” goals align well with those of the Atlanta Streetcar.  The streetcar will not cause development to happen, but rather sets the stage – along with other supportive land use policy and public investment – to attract and shape development that is compact, walkable, high-density, mixed-use and sustainable.  Investment in the Atlanta Streetcar transit is an integral placemaking tool because it is consistent with the guiding principles that are essential to the revitalization of Sweet Auburn.

Professional and academic research has built an increasingly well documented case that transit-oriented communities that are designed to support pedestrian activity are economically more competitive and attract the best talent and resources. As experienced in other cities nationwide, the permanency of rail tracks has been shown to spur economic development and not just in station areas like heavy rail transit, but along the entire route. This value-creation is already evidenced in Downtown Atlanta near the Atlanta Streetcar route.  Within a quarter-mile, or a 5-minute walk of the track alignment, $561 million has already been invested since 2011 when the TIGER grant was awarded.  Another $688 million worth of new construction, adaptive re-use and renovations are under construction, planned and proposed for the same corridor.

Attractive, convenient service increases transit ridership, foot traffic and customers for businesses served by the streetcar.  Investment and growth will improve the quality of life for residents, employees, students, visitors and shoppers in the area.  For the Atlanta Streetcar, this will be a benefit to the existing residents, businesses and destinations along the corridor, as well as an opportunity to attract new residents, thriving businesses and destinations.