Mass Transit

Atlanta Plans To Blow More Money On Failed Streetcar Line

City leaders also want to build "glorified sidewalk" that will cost $4.8 billion.



Twenty-one months after it opened, the Atlanta Streetcar system is yet another expensive disaster in the long list of poorly planned urban transportation projects.

City officials are convinced, though, that the solution to the streetcar's problems is spending even more money to build a longer streetcar line—and a $4.8 billion sidewalk too.

The current streetcar line opened in December 2014. It runs over a 2.7-mile loop through the city's downtown and cost $98 million to build. Though ridership met the city's expectations for the first year, when it was free to hop aboard the streetcar, those numbers cratered in 2016 when the city started charging $1 per ride.

Over the first three months of the year, ridership was down by 62 percent. Even fewer people are actually paying: the mayor's office told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the streetcar provided 91,000 rides during the first three months of this year but the streetcar generated only $45,000 in revenue over the same period.

Even if the streetcar maintained the same ridership level (809,000 riders) that it had when it was free in 2015, a $1 per ride fare wouldn't come close to balancing out the streetcar's $5 million annual operating cost.

If all that weren't bad enough, the not-yet-two-years-old streetcar has been beset by management troubles, equipment failures and safety problems—including inaccurate reporting of safety issues and accidents. In May, the Georgia Department of Transportation threatened to shut down the streetcar unless the city's transit authority got things under control.

Now, Atlanta is moving forward with plans to build a 22-mile walking and biking trail completely surrounding downtown. Inspired by projects like High Line Park in New York City, Atlanta city planners want to use disused railway beds around the city to build one of the nation's largest pedestrian loops connecting 45 of the city's neighborhoods, the New York Times reported this week.

Of course the project wouldn't be complete unless the "glorified sidewalk"—as the Times called the Atlanta BeltLine project—was somehow connected to the failing streetcar system. The city's budget for the Beltline project calls for $3 million in spending this year to design a 1.5 mile extension of the existing streetcar line. If it gets built, the extension is likely to cost $62 million.

"Some people made a lot of money building the $200 million streetcar line. They no doubt are eager to make more building other lines," says Randal O'Toole, a transportation analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute. "But streetcars serve no viable transportation purpose except to spend money."

The city claims the streetcar has generated $1.5 billion in economic activity, but an investigation by the Journal-Constitution found that many of those claimed benefits come from building projects that were already happening before the streetcar was approved.

If the problems with the Atlanta Streetcar sound familiar, that's because they are. As Reason has noted repeatedly, light rail and streetcar systems are more expensive and less useful than other forms of mass transit.

The $200 million streetcar in Washington, D.C., runs for just 2.2 miles (twice as expensive and half a mile shorter than Atlanta's streetcar boondoggle). It was "was ill-planned, ill-thought-out, ill-engineered, ill-everything," as late former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry once put it.

Similar streetcar projects in Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit and Honolulu are dealing with similar problems: construction cost overruns, small ridership and barely any evidence of economic benefits.

In Atlanta, it doesn't seem like the lesson has been learned—Atlanta's grand streetcar plan includes 50 miles of tracks at an estimated total cost of $1.5 billion.

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  1. Lay it purdy for Atlanta.

  2. People are afraid of new things. They should take the existing line and put a clock in it or something.

  3. This is the drrrrty South….it has been used entirely for ghost ride tha train videos on Worldstar.

    1. That Ghostbusters sample sounds a lot better than I would have thought.

    2. I’m guessing he owns a stake in some body shops.

  4. “The city claims the streetcar has generated $1.5 billion in economic activity,…”

    Anyone who falls for that sort of clap-trap deserves the current major presidential candidates.

    1. It more likely to have generated $1.5 billion in negative economic activity

      1. Larry Ellison’s rubber-ducky race was ‘supposed’ to pave SF streets with gold. Later:
        “America’s Cup put San Francisco $5.5 million in the red”…..050201.php

  5. “If it doesn’t work, Prog harder!”

    1. + 2 broken window fallacies

  6. Twenty-one months after it opened, the Atlanta Streetcar system is yet another expensive disaster in the long list of poorly planned urban transportation projects.

    It’s becuz of them darn Deplorables! (“Deplorables” being easier to say than “kulaks, hoarders, and wreckers”)

  7. This, along with high-speed rail, is another transportation idea that I don’t get in the modern age. There’s a reason why trolleys and streetcars are obsolete; they lack the convenience of personal vehicles, require more capital than bus systems, and the possible routes are far less flexible to population changes than buses.

    1. Wait a second, I think I might see why. Urban planners must look at San Francisco and Amsterdam and think about how our city should have those charming rails and trolleys on the street too! It really makes me wonder how bright our so-called highly educated urban planners really are.

      1. Given their propensity for getting things wrong and for spending lots of money making mistakes that take lots more money to correct (or to get wrong in a different way), I have never taken them seriously.

      2. Urban planners Railroad worker unions must look at San Francisco and Amsterdam …

  8. Wait. A hiking/biking path for $4.8 billion? With a ‘b’? How is that even possible? Yellow bricks and shit?

    1. It shouldn’t take that many millions to convert railway beds to trails, so I have no idea where the remaining $3B or so is going to. I’m sure it’s for very legitimate purposes.

      1. Contracts for community organizing and awareness to the family members of local politicos. Gotta dip that beak, you know.

    2. Yep. The path does lead to a wizard, you know.

      1. The roads must roll!

      2. The roads must roll!

        1. +1 Heinlein reference. Been awhile since we had one of those. Well-done.

    3. I thought that was a typo but it’s in the nyt article. Maybe buying up all the property needed? Dunno. But at least they have $54m in donations, so that bucket does have a single drop in it.

    4. They want streetcars running alongside the pedestrian portion along with a vast streetcar network all over the city because white people won’t ride a bus.

      1. A terrorist or poor person could hijack a bus and drive it to a bad neighborhood. Can’t do that with light rail.

        1. With light rail a terrorist doesn’t have to hijack anything. Sneak in at night and mess up a track. Pick the right place, and it will wreck one or more trains and shut the whole system down.

      2. They want streetcars running alongside the pedestrian portion…

        Back when I was seven, walking a train track was an adventure. Now that I’m seventy, notsomuch.

    5. Either it’s very long or they are putting in a lot of pedestrian/bike bridges. Still seems ridiculously expensive.

  9. The people-moving technology of the 1800s…Today!

    1. We’re building a bridge to the early 20th century!

  10. I don’t get it; for hundreds of millions of dollars, you could blanket a city with free bus service.

    But then I guess you don’t get the smug satisfaction of sailing past gridlocked cars.

    Though ridership met the city’s expectations for the first year, when it was free to hop aboard the streetcar, those numbers cratered in 2016 when the city started charging $1 per ride.

    That’s a pretty stark indictment of rail and our attitudes about mass transit. Charging one friggin’ dollar is too expensive? How can *any* rail system in the country expect to meet operating costs with that fact staring you in the face?

    1. Again, though, private buses often cost far more to use, and they generally do far better on average than the local transport authority. So you can get people to pay for transit, but not in the places where the local bus authorities want to put them in or at the speeds that they would be comfortable with (see the Chinatown buses)

    2. It isn’t just the cash. It doesn’t go anywhere. So a lot of the riders are just tourists, even if they are in-city tourists. They say, hey, let’s ride the streetcar! for a laugh. Or maybe they hop on to go a few blocks. But it isn’t worth a buck to wait five minutes to catch the train when you could make the entire walk in less than 10 minutes.

      Kinda like the fly/drive breakdown. If you are headed to an office park outside of a nearby city that would be a 3 hour drive, you don’t fly because it’ll take every bit of 3 hours door-to-door by plane, and you have to rent a car and pay for the flight. Moreso if more than one person is travelling. But if it is a 5 hour drive and you could make it door-to-door in a little over 2 hours by plane, well, you are probably flying if it is for business.

      If you have to walk 2 blocks over to the streetcar, then wait for a train, then walk a couple of blocks to your destination after you get off, what’s the point? I doubt there would be all that many trips that would make it worthwhile to use the streetcar and pay the buck.

      Also, this thing doesn’t go anywhere useful. It appears to be designed to take business travelers headed for the world congress center area back and forth to hotels and then on down to the MLK memorial and that neighborhood in an attempt to create a tourist destination and as a payoff to the area powers. So another Underground Atlanta style failure.

    3. Also, it’s the same reason why people won’t pay to drive on a toll road unless it truly is better than the alternative routes. The Raleigh area has a toll road that barely anyone uses because you don’t save that much time using the alternative route to justify paying $3 or so. Imagine if the turnpike authority raised the speed limit to 100 mph. You wouldn’t be able to get people off that road; I could even imagine local specials on driving addiction.

    4. They don’t make it easy to pay. You need to get a ticket ahead of time at a kiosk that is only at certain stops. The ticket machine doesn’t take cash, only credit card or transit card. They often are not working (out of paper for ticket) or too complicated for tourist. The operator has to get out sometimes to help tourist figure it out. Locals don’t pay, most of the paying fares are tourist. I pay for one way but not for the trip back, there is no two way ticket just a $3 day pass, if you were taking a bus there would be free a transfer.
      I took it on Sat, drove me nuts, much worse than a bus at much higher infrastructure cost. Took me 45 minutes to go a mile. Whoever said flying by traffic doesn’t understand the street in street car, they have to stop just like cars and cars sometimes block the dedicated street car lane.

    5. How can you sail past them, when your rails are in the same roadbed as those cars?

      Next they’ll be mule-drawn.

  11. Virginia Beach VA is trying to extend the money losing Norfolk light rail into Virginia Beach. Even though its only going to be a 3 mile extension in a straight line on already government owned freight rail right of way its going to cost $300 million or more. The Norfolk light rail line cost the same amount even though its 7 miles long and had expensive street work done and its was still over budget

    1. And, from what I understand the beachfront businesses are not keen on making it easy for urban youths to get to the boardwalk area.

  12. Speaking of the nyt article, the real reason they’re doing streetcars and bike paths in ATL can be seen in the first paragraph.

    ATLANTA ? Could this traffic-clogged Southern city, long derided as the epitome of suburban sprawl, really be discovering its walkable, bike-friendly, density-embracing, streetcar-riding, human-scale soul?

    And this one:

    To hear the parade organizer, Chantelle Rytter, describe it, the Atlanta pageant might as well be a jazz funeral for the death of the city’s old reputation, which she sums up in three words: “Soulless parking lot.”

    NYC is still the cultural leader for all things urban in the US, and civic leaders in Atlanta will imitate the superficial details of New York transportation because they have a hipness insecurity, not because it’s a solution they think will work for them.

    1. LA is trying to do the same thing?

    2. But NYC got rid of streetcars long ago, so what superficial details are they imitating?

      1. You would think that was the case, Robert. But unfortunately not yet. De Blasio knows it has to go better this time!……html?_r=0

  13. Pockets were lined.

  14. Urban planners must look at San Francisco and Amsterdam and think about how our city should have those charming rails and trolleys on the street too! It really makes me wonder how bright our so-called highly educated urban planners really are.

    I think they look at the way cities built in naturally constricted areas (surrounded by mountains or water, for example) and wish they could build a wall to contain development. It hasn’t worked yet, but they want to keep trying.

    1. That’s like saying that a person is charming or unique because of the bullet scars on his feet, and that someone wants to emulate said person.

    2. “Urban planners…” There’s your problem, right there.

  15. …long list of poorly planned urban transportation projects.

    Uhhh. This statement presumes beyond any and all evidence that you could plan such urban transportation projects well.

    If the net benefit is negative, then no amount of planning can correct it. It’s like saying the Soviet Union was a poorly planned proletariat dictatorship. The only good planning in this case is not to start the project at all.

  16. The price tag is way out there ? the majority of neighborhoods involved in the construction (west-southwest ATL) are nearly favelas at this point. No idea what they’re going to do aside from building the concrete path and lighting, as I’m not sure any amount of money could fix what the war on drugs has done to destroy those neighborhoods. Politicians in ATL spent decades looking past the problems (esp. violent crime) in those areas. Also, the street car is an absolute waste for downtown. NO ONE uses it.

    1. You’re preaching to the choir, but unfortunately too many city leaders and urban planners think that they must emulate San Francisco rather than do things their own way. The Raleigh City Council has the same issue: they look at how New York has these dedicated bike lanes on their streets and immediately think it’s a brilliant idea to put the same thing on their streets, notwithstanding the fact that NY doesn’t have the room for dedicated greenways like Raleigh already has. All it does is clog up and restrict lanes for the cars and trucks that truly use those streets. Planners keep planning.

    2. Beltline isn’t horrible, but the cost is mind-blowing. And losing the Masquerade is a crime. But, all together, Beltline isn’t that bad.

      The streetcar is another story. In addition to being a completely unused waste of money, it is an incredibly annoying obstacle to traffic. It certainly doesn’t improve anything. But, that’s what happens when the city is run by refugees who left NY and SF looking for jobs and houses under $500k combined with hipster progs who fantasize over making ATL more like NY and SF. That’s also why cities like Sandy Springs, Brookhaven, Dunwoody, etc. keep leaving ATL and incorporating

  17. The only advantage light rail has is that it is closer to autonomous than buses. But that won’t be for long as autonomous buses aren’t that far away.

    But we all know the entire point of light rail is the construction handouts to cronies. The more colossal the failure, the better for the cronies.

  18. Well this is disappointing I was used to coming to Reason to get… reason I guess. This is more like a kind of low information hit piece. Absolutely nobody who is actually familiar with the beltline would doubt it’s positive economic effect or its potential. Although some do call it a glorified sidewalk. Mainly when complaining about the slow progress of construction.

    Sad to see being the voice of angry suburban “libertarians” who think the only worthy transportation project is a multi lane highway going straight to their cul de sac.

  19. Let me warn you about driving in Atlanta now that it has streetcars. I live in the burbs outside Atlanta and was driving down there at night a while back. I pull up to a red light, then realize that my car is sitting on top of the streetcar rails. It is too dark to see them. The rails curve, of course, to make a turn, so they cut into the lane of oncoming traffic, which is dangerous. Luckily, no streetcar was coming, but it could have been ugly. Keep your eyes out for the rails so you don’t stop on top of them.

  20. The BeltLine itself is definitely *not* underused, but the description “glorified sidewalk” isn’t far off the mark. It’s a beautiful Saturday, and the fucker’s packed. I use it as part of my bike commute to work. It’s lined with art works, has a popular skate park, and since it’s built on old railbeds, it’s flat and cuts through areas I’d othewise have to go around. It’s a cross between a pedestrian/bicycle freeway and a park, and people use it as such. In that capacity, it’s great, though I’m sure it cost way more than it needed to. It is a publicly funded project, after all. Point is, I don’t think it could fairly be called a boondoggle.
    Fuck the streetcar, though. It’s the goddamn worst.

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