Photo courtesy Atlanta Streetcar

Photo courtesy Atlanta Streetcar

The Atlanta Streetcar is part of the larger “Connect Atlanta” plan, which is intended to increase transportation options, promote sustainable development and create a better urban environment.

The 2.7-mile line will run along an east-west  route with 12 stops/stations using streetcars  powered by overhead wire technology. Operational costs for the $92.6 million project will be covered by farebox revenue, advertising, Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID), city car rental and hotel/motel taxes, and federal funds.

Some of the immediate benefits of the project, scheduled to open this year, include its potential to increase ridership on connecting transit networks and the enhancement of mobility, as far as “last mile” connectivity, to destinations for transit-dependent populations, including residents, tourists, students and senior citizens.

Additionally, the streetcar line fills in circulation links and provides connectivity to existing transit services in Downtown Atlanta, as well as future commuter rail and regional light rail, and reconnects Downtown Atlanta’s east-west neighborhoods.

The Atlanta Streetcar is the first stage in what is expected to become a major overhaul of the city’s transit system, according to Tim Borchers, executive director of the streetcar project.  

I spoke with him about the project’s role as a key part of the Atlanta Beltline plan and the challenges faced during construction.

Janna Starcic: Why did it take so long for a streetcar system to be developed in Atlanta?

Borchers: The Atlanta Streetcar was initially envisioned as an east-west connection between the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site and Centennial Olympic Park, with a north-south alignment along Peachtree Street. Unfortunately, the project lost out on the opportunity for TIGER I Stimulus. However, in October 2010 the City of Atlanta received notice it had been awarded approximately $47.6 million in funds, through the TIGER II federal grant program, which would partially fund the originally proposed east-west connection.  

What was behind the decision to go with streetcars?

Streetcars are an integral part of the story of Atlanta. The first streetcar line, which connected Peachtree Street with what is now Spelman College, opened in 1871. During the early 20th century Atlanta’s population tripled as streetcars helped expand the city limits to nearby suburbs, creating a vibrant and easily accessible metropolis. So, building the Atlanta Streetcar now is not about nostalgia, it’s about accommodating growth and planning for the future. It’s about how revisiting our ‘routes,’ as it were, will help us in revitalizing our city.

As far as why a streetcar and not some other form of transit, we feel that the Atlanta Streetcar is the best way to improve east-west connectivity in Downtown Atlanta; it provides a backbone for enhancing and building the walkable, mixed-use urban neighborhoods envisioned in the Connect Atlanta plan.

I would also add that public opinion via the Beltline’s early surveys showed a clear community preference for streetcars.

What do you see as your key challenges in delivering the streetcar project in Atlanta?

Atlanta is an older city that’s been rebuilt many times, and we are building in the oldest part of the city — so that’s been a challenge sometimes. Otherwise, we haven’t really had any challenges that have not been experienced by other cities building streetcar systems.

What was the turning point for this project?
Of course, the Award of TIGER II grant. When we started laying rail about a year ago — that made everything much more real.

Who will operate and maintain the line?

Meetings among the Atlanta Streetcar sponsors — MARTA [Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority] the City of Atlanta and the ADID — continue, and we are making significant progress on determining who will operate and maintain the Atlanta Streetcar. We have consulted with the FTA about options and are preparing additional documentation for them to memorialize our approach.

Siemens S70 vehicles will use overhead wires.

Siemens S70 vehicles will use overhead wires.

Explain the reasons for the rising costs of the project.

The original TIGER grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation was for [approximately] $47.6 million, with a match from local funds of $21.6 million.

The TIGER II application proposed four rehabilitated light rail transit vehicles, to be obtained through an agreement with the Sacramento Regional Transit District, with only two vehicles required for basic service.

Early in the project, shortly after the announcement of the TIGER II award, the City made the decision to buy new vehicles instead of rehabilitated used vehicles. This decision was made following careful review of upfront costs and long-term maintenance throughout the vehicles’ lifespan, with the input of FTA. The decision also significantly set the tone for the City’s plans for a larger streetcar network in the future. Two new vehicles were purchased through the TIGER II grant, and the City decided to buy two additional new vehicles at a cost of [about] $9 million. Having four vehicles will allow for expansion of the system and increase in frequency when warranted. The local funds used to buy the two vehicles remain available for local match for future grants and do not represent an increase in either the scope or cost of the project. In fact, having these locally funded vehicles available will increase the City’s competitive position in the future for additional federal funding.

In addition, because of the franchise agreements in place, private utilities are required to pay for the relocation of their facilities for transportation projects in the City rights-of-way. The public utility — through the Department of Watershed Management — provided an allowance of up to $8 million for the relocation of their water and sewer facilities. This could have been managed under a separate contract, but to aid in coordination with overall construction, the decision was made to incorporate this allowance into the basic construction contract for the streetcar. Thus, what might appear to be an increase in the cost of the project is, in fact, a prudent management decision to facilitate the project.

Also, several completely separate projects sponsored by the City and ADID, and funded by Livable Centers Initiative (LCI) grants from the Atlanta Regional Commission, were combined into the project in order to minimize disruption and gain efficiencies by having a single contractor responsible for the combined projects.

These projects include bicycle and pedestrian amenities, traffic signal modifications, supplemental coordination for the placement of overhead power system poles, and improvements along the eastern loop, which upgrades the pedestrian and biking environment beyond what was provided in the basic project. While these projects could be deemed an expansion of the scope, the LCI grant projects are important to the highly pedestrian-oriented development in Downtown Atlanta and represent a substantial addition to the streetcar.

And, finally, the original budget for the contract for construction provided for contingency funds to be held in the event of unanticipated costs. A management decision was made to delay the beginning of construction until all utilities were substantially out of the way of the planned construction schedule. This did cause an increase in extended overhead, however, the sponsors made a conscious decision that it was better to delay the beginning of construction until utility issues were either cleared or under control, rather than to begin construction and have complicated conflicts arise, which would likely have escalated costs significantly.  

How does the streetcar project fit into the overall revitalization of downtown Atlanta?

Streetcars are more than the ‘next new thing’ in urban transportation. With a growing number of people — both younger workers and empty nesters — choosing to move into or near large cities, streetcars make sense because they can easily connect passengers with a wide array of activities and jobs in the urban corridors. They also allow these same city dwellers to have more transportation choices and give those looking for a more sustainable lifestyle the option of being car-free.  

For those going farther afield, or coming in to the city from the suburbs, streetcars provide inner-city connectivity from larger regional transit systems, helping reduce congestion downtown. A single streetcar can transport as many people as 177 automobiles and, being electric, they do it more efficiently and with fewer emissions.

The Atlanta Streetcar is part of the city’s long-term Connect Atlanta plan, which was developed to accommodate growth while maintaining the quality of life desired by an increasingly diverse population. The increased transit access and mobility provided by the streetcar will support projected growth while encouraging economic development.

Discuss selection of the vehicles. What were some key requirements?

The four Siemens S70 vehicles are examples of the most advanced modern streetcar design and technology available. They are low-floor vehicles, which make them accessible for people of all abilities, have four designated wheelchair spaces and can hold about 200 passengers. They have wide doors on both sides, which allow easier passenger movement, and they are also very quiet. Here in town, they will operate at speeds up to 35 mph; with a software change, they can operate at higher speeds.          

Discuss selection of overhead wire technology.
While there are other technologies available, most streetcar systems use overhead catenary wires for power. Any system that’s not used widely is inevitably less reliable and more expensive than a more widespread system.

That said, battery and supercapacitor energy storage technology is evolving quickly. Siemens is installing supercapacitors on a new light rail transit line in Portland, Ore. This line is expected to open in 2015, and we will certainly be looking at how well it works.

What plans are there to expand the service?

Expansion is already underway — there are projects in motion that will explore the feasibility of the first extension to the Beltline.

How will the streetcar integrate with current and future transit services?
The decisions made along the way have always been made with an eye toward the future. The nature of the partnership certainly promotes that.

Our vision is that the Atlanta Streetcar is the first step in building an interoperable comprehensive regional streetcar and light rail transit system. It will connect Atlanta and the region through connections to MARTA heavy-rail and planned streetcar and light-rail corridors. The first planned expansions are anticipated to extend from the Downtown Loop to the Atlanta Beltline.