Make no mistake, the new downtown streetcar is more about economic development than relieving traffic congestion. Sure, it will get some people out of their cars for travel along the city's east-west corridors. And it will circulate tourists and conventioneers to the big cultural destinations. But it's what happens between the King Center and Centennial Olympic Park that will render the streetcar project a success, or not.
Supporters are betting it returns life to vast empty stretches of downtown through renovation and resurgence of real estate — new storefronts, offices, apartments and condos.
"We have to get beyond the conversation in our metro area that any dollars spent on infrastructure, particularly transit, should be for reducing traffic congestion," says A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. "This project was conceived early on as a Peachtree Street project to enhance the experience of Peachtree Street and to shore up property values."
The streetcar line that broke ground last week will travel a 2.6-mile loop from the King Center west on Auburn Avenue to Peachtree Street and Centennial Olympic Park, stopping at many downtown tourist sites, business centers and the Peachtree Center MARTA station. It will return to the King Historic District via Luckie Street and Edgewood Avenue.
Atlanta city Councilman Kwanza Hall calls the streetcar the new "downtown connector," linking the King historic district and Sweet Auburn — cut off, at least symbolically, by the interstates that bisect the city — with the central business core.
"It's reconnecting our city, reconnecting human beings across parties, across economic lines and demographics and race and class," Hall says. "It's an opportunity to unify and come together around this great investment and utilize it as a tool and a catalyst to spur on greater investment in and around the eastern portion of downtown and the Old Fourth Ward community."
It's about much more than ridership numbers, Hall says. "I understand what the critics are harping on and I've listened to the conversation for quite some time, in board meetings as well as in the media, but I have to say, this is a piece of the puzzle. This is not a silver bullet. It's a place-based strategy that we're taking to utilize transit-oriented development to reconnect neighborhoods."
There's no denying the popularity of streetcar projects around the country: At least two dozen cities have existing modern streetcar or light-rail systems, or are planning them. (For a map, see www.thetransportpolitic.com.)
Robinson says the ADID is tracking property along the corridor to gauge the impact of the streetcar through construction and next year's opening.
He's heard positive feedback from new owners of office buildings along the streetcar line, such as 100 Peachtree St. (formerly the Equitable Building), who say the promise of the streetcar influenced their decisions to buy.
"We can debate all the naysayers about traffic congestion and economic development on either score. But we're already starting to see it," Robinson says. "I'm convinced it is a real positive thing for our downtown community. Because in the world we live in, we're not going to get a lot of new buildings built, anywhere. This really helps us shore up the buildings that we have and leads to people investing and renovating buildings in getting ready for this.
"The whole criticism about traffic congestion, that's just not why we did it," he said. "This is a connectivity piece."