The AJC’s “Gridlock Guy” Mark Arum has weighed in on the streetcar situation again today. His story is more of what we’ve come to see from him: a scathing review showing transit to be a colossal waste of taxpayer money. Mr. Arum is right about the ridership numbers. He’s also right to point out that after the $1 boarding fee went into place, the 90,000 riders for the first three months of this year are far too low for the streetcar route to be considered successful. And finally, he’s right to show that the streetcar has been poorly managed and is rife with operational mistakes and failures.
But using only these points to prove that the entire concept is flawed is an irresponsible exercise in policy making. Let’s remember that the Atlanta streetcar is supposed to be a network of interconnected routes; the plan was never meant to end at building the one line running between downtown and the King Memorial. It’s fine to look at just this route and conclude that if the numbers are low, then this route was a bad idea. It’s completely different to look at it, ignore the fact that the route is just the beginning of a larger planned system, and then conclude that the entire concept is a failure because this particular route has low ridership numbers.
Many streetcar and transit supporters, including this site, agreed that this particular line would have low ridership numbers and probably shouldn’t be the first line built to engender support for the project. The route runs through a downtown area with few residents and connects to a historic district that has little capacity to grow much taller or denser. But, again, this was just supposed to be an initial route. If you build part of a road and few people use it, does that mean the entire planned system of roads is a failure?
The 90,000 riders mentioned by Arum may not even be a good representation of actual ridership numbers. Over the Fourth of July weekend last year the streetcar carried over 20,000 riders. That’s in one weekend. In July alone, the streetcar registered over 102,000 riders. Yes back then it was free, but we’re talking about a difference of $1. Perhaps those who were just testing it out last year because it was new may no longer choose the streetcar, but a $1 fee is still incredibly cheap for those who need or want the transportation.
There’s no question as to whether we’ve seen a decrease in the number of riders since the implementation of the fee this past January, but the decrease has at least been as predicted; not only is it to be expected that ridership would be higher for this tourism-driven line during the summer and lower in the winter, but we should expect some decrease in ridership once a fee goes into place. Still, the average daily ridership since January is half the number predicted, lending credence to the idea that this was a poor choice for a first route.
Now let’s look at economic development. It’s indisputable that the streetcar has directly resulted in some economic development in the immediate area. We’ve seen the same thing happen in cities across the country. Last year, the COO of the Atlanta Streetcar, Michael Geisler, wrote an op-ed defending the streetcar in which he cited 500 million dollars of investment that has already occurred and a planned $700 million more in the area. Now those numbers are certainly up for debate; we don’t know exactly what projects the streetcar directly spurred and, perhaps more importantly, the numbers are usually provided by the private developers so there isn’t much oversight over their accuracy.
Even if some of the numbers are inflated, there’s still a substantial amount of economic investment that definitively can be tied to the streetcar. Kim Seak, the owner of the Atlantic Seafood Market in the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, told the AJC in an article last December that business had increased 10 percent since the streetcar opened. Jay Clark, CEO of Southeast Capital Companies, told the AJC that the streetcar drove his decision to build a proposed $50 million housing complex in the Edgewood Avenue area. Those are just two examples.
The resulting economic growth is something that must be discussed when analyzing and critiquing the streetcar system. If you spend $100 million on a transit project and it results in $500 million in economic investment then you are getting a pretty good return. The neighborhoods get upgrades in infrastructure and the city increases its tax base. Mr. Arum completely fails to take this into consideration. I’m not so sure fixing potholes and adding left turn lanes would result in the same return on investment.
One point that’s continually brought up by anti-transit proponents is the fact that transit doesn’t pay for itself. Based on the latest ridership numbers a $1 fare will not completely support the streetcar. For those proponents, this is a fatal flaw in transit. But isn’t this exactly how highways work? The closest things to user fees paid by drivers is the gas tax and tolls.
The revenue generated from those mechanisms doesn’t come anywhere close to completely funding the highway system. Additional tax revenue is needed to construct and maintain our roads. Many drivers are willing to tell transit users that they must fund transit themselves by the sole means of implementing user fees. The same drivers are unwilling to fund highways and roads this way.
The streetcar isn’t just about alleviating traffic in downtown Atlanta. It’s about building better communities that have multiple transportation options so as to allow more people to live and work in the area. Expanding MARTA rail or building billion-dollar highway projects isn’t going to magically ease traffic congestion. It is going to allow more people to live in the area and potentially grow the economy while attempting to mitigate any additional congestion, just like the streetcar. Solely using the ridership numbers for the initial route to come to a conclusion about the entire concept is completely missing the point of the streetcar project.