By A.J. Robinson, President of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District
As we approach the one year anniversary of the Atlanta Streetcar launch, I'm reminded of how far we've come as a community since the idea of reintroducing a streetcar system began almost 15 years ago. In those early days, we gave little thought to potential ridership numbers, economic impacts or even traffic mitigation. What we strived for was re-connectivity of the central core with its surrounding neighborhoods and preservation of the value of Peachtree Street, one of the City's most important north-south corridors.
We realized back then this was a long-term infrastructure project, much like a new airport runway, bridge or roadway, and it would not be fully appreciated in the short-term. In a way we expected some reluctance and criticism during the early stages, specifically from those who refuse to see the benefits of the Atlanta Streetcar which include, providing missing circulation and direct connectivity to existing transit services coming into Downtown, as well as future intercity and high-speed passenger rail services; and generating economic impact and new investment for the City.
Make no mistake about it. From our vantage point in the Downtown community, the long-term benefits we sought still remain and we are seeing investment along the Streetcar route that is well chronicled. Since the funding announcement in 2011, $842 million in new investment has been completed within a five-minute walk of the Streetcar, with another $1.1 billion under construction or planned. While it is disputable that some of these projects would have happened without the Streetcar, there’s no denying that it's all about building a strong Atlanta brand. If you think that's a good idea, then stay with the program. If not, that’s okay by us.
On one hand, we’re pleased that the Streetcar is newsworthy and has caught the attention of so many who care deeply about the system’s operation and safety. On the other hand, we’d like to see more balanced and relevant reporting that is based on the system as a whole. Not these investigative, watch-dog stories that get into the weeds of dated forecasts. For example, we have yet to see a story about the improved service we’re delivering. When we opened the system a year ago it took three vehicles to deliver 15 minute service. Over the past year we have made great progress to fine-tune the system, which is tricky given the Streetcar operates in an environment it does not have sole control over - unlike MARTA rail. We can now operate two vehicles and reach that 15-minute frequency mark - but it has taken time, coordination and some trial and error.
The system has not operated with perfection, very few start-up operations ever do. But we have delivered a fundamentally safe service as our paramount priority - with commitment to continue to improve, mature and grow. We have successfully established a true baseline for which we can track ourselves given that previous comparisons were in their best sense models' attempts to replicate a service that did not exist in Atlanta. The experiences of the Atlanta Streetcar are not unique -recruitment, retention and service reliability are challenges faced by transit agencies nationwide.
In conclusion, I reiterate what I said at the Streetcar ribbon-cutting event last year. “For those of you who constantly criticize the building of the Atlanta Streetcar, we didn't build it for you. We built it for your children and grandchildren and future Atlantans who seek a different kind of lifestyle.”