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Archive for July, 2011

Atlanta Trolley Dreams

Atlanta is strangling because of its auto traffic.  Many times of the day, you can’t get from one place to another without long waits in traffic.  Like so many other cities, Atlanta is looking to rapid transit solutions.  The town already has a heavy rail system, MARTA.  There are a number of county transit agencies that feed traffic into Atlanta and to MARTA.  There is a long term plan to ring the City with an electric powered commuter Beltline.  And, there is a plan to build a streetcar which will operate on Atlanta’s historic Peachtree Street. [Note: the Peachtree Street trolley project north of downtown Atlanta is now moribund and may have been abandoned, RO’C]

Oddly enough, the advocates for this streetcar plan have decided that the first stage of construction will be a line from downtown’s Centennial Park east to the King Center.  Among other attractions at Centennial Park is the Georgia Aquarium, which anticipates attendance this year of 3 million people.  The King Center, on the other hand, sees something around 700,000 people.   Something must be done!

Never mind that two different feeder bus routes have been attempted in an effort to draw traffic to the King Center.  Never mind that there currently is bus service to the King Center, Route 3 and Route 99.  No, this time it will be different because we’re going to have a real streetcar.  No, this time it will be different because we’re spending a lot of money. In truth, a lot of the people who are supporting this project wouldn’t know the difference between a street tram and a baby pram.

Suit yourself; it smells like a boondoggle to me, for several reasons.  And, I’m not alone. Pot stirrer Neal Boortz has called it “Fanplex on Wheels” (Fanplex was a minor league boondoggle foisted on the taxpayers by the Atlanta/Fulton County Recreation Authority).  $2.5 million later, Fanplex is nothing but a weed covered lot near Turner Field.  Likewise, others have opined about this bad idea.  Even the Atlanta Journal Constitution hated the idea.  So did their conservative columnist, Kyle Wingfield in “A Streetcar Not Desired“.

Given the nearly universal disapproval for this project, you have to wonder who does think that this is a good idea.  It’s these guys:

Waiting for the guy from Washington with the Big Check

And, why not?  It’s not their money.  The check is courtesy of the American Taxpayers.  And, I’m sure that it is just a coincidence that all pictured are members of one political party.

In the interest of fairness, a quote from check-giver Transportation Secretary Mr. Ray LaHood:

This streetcar project will give people the option to leave the car at home and get to where they need to go in downtown Atlanta.  In addition to providing safe, clean and affordable transportation options, this project will create jobs, reduce congestion downtown and connect university and hospital resources to public transit stations.

Never mind that most of what he describes is already available from other transportation systems.  Or won’t exist after this streetcar system is completed.  But, I digress.  Let’s look at a few issues.

The Streetcar Route

From Centennial Park, the streetcar route goes through the Fairlie-Poplar district.  Very nice.

Fairlie - Poplar District

The line then turns eastward on Edgewood Avenue.  At first, you see office buildings, Georgia State and Hurt Park:

And then the neighborhood begins to change:

200 Block - Edgewood Avenue

You know that things are bad when the local pawn shop closes:

Finally, after several blocks of vacant lots, an Interstate overpass and two-story buildings, the King Center (note that it already has bus service):

Auburn Avenue & Jackson Street

The route then turns westward onto Auburn Avenue and returns to downtown.

This is Sweet Auburn, a place of powerful memory for many Atlantans.  Before there was integration, there was Sweet Auburn, a stroll in the vernacular of the day.  It was a place where African-Americans could be themselves and walk freely.  It was a place where the black businesses of that day could thrive.  It was all there, music, food, businesses, all within the confines of the African-American community.  You had no need to go into that other world.  You could be born in Grady Hospital, live on Auburn and be buried by Haugabrooks.  Integration would change that, for the African American entrepreneur was no longer limited to Sweet Auburn, but could be on Peachtree Street, with all the other business people.  Sweet Auburn began to dwindle.

Likewise, Sweet Auburn was a cradle for the civil rights movement.  Besides Wheat Street Baptist Church, the civil rights organizations of the day were there, too. Looking toward downtown Atlanta:

The Masonic Lodge, and beyond, the Southern Christian Leadership Center.

Across the street:

Auburn & Hilliard

As the streetcar continues west on Auburn, it becomes increasingly apparent that the Sweet Auburn neighborhood is in distress:

Auburn Avenue

To the right, where the offices of Cornelius King & Sons real estate were once located.  Further, to the right, where the Royal Peacock Night Club once stood:

Otis Redding Performed Here

On the left, the former location of the Palamont Motel, now the site of a new building with residential lofts.  On the right, the original Atlanta Life Insurance Building, with the current Atlanta Life Building just beyond, close to downtown:

Atlanta Life, Old and New

I’m not very happy about the current state of the neighborhood through which the streetcar travels, but remember, this is what visitors to Atlanta who use the new streetcar will be seeing.

Given how preoccupied the Atlanta business community is about the Atlanta “brand”, you would think that they had toured the streetcar route before they supported it.  Surely once these raw edges have been discovered, there are likely to be calls for “Urban Renewal“.  And the need for even more Federal money; which, of course, comes with the need for more local money to match it.

The Cars

When people hear the term “streetcar”, a nostalgic image comes to mind:

Old Street Car

Sorry, but given all the Federal regulations and threats of lawsuits, this is what the new streetcar will look like:

Proposed Atlanta Streetcar

Yep, that’s it, the old upside down bathtub.  Just like in Europe:

Madrid Streetcar

Not very romantic.

The Precedent

One would think that given the magnitude of this project, more thought would have been devoted to the possible consequences of starting a new transportation system on the King Center route.  Initially, plans were for Atlanta Streetcar development to build on Peachtree Street, the north/south thoroughfare of Atlanta.  So, how was this allowed to happen?

Politics.  I know that this might be shocking to you, but this sort of thing is not without precedent.

Consider the MARTA Green Line:

MARTA Green Rail Line

This line runs largely on the same route used by the East / West Blue line until Ashby Street Station.  At that point, it leaves the Blue Line and runs 1.5 miles northwest to Bankhead Station, where the Green Line terminates.  So, what was so important that a complete, very expensive heavy rail transit line was built 1.5 miles to a single station?  Politics.

Originally, the Green Line was among several projected MARTA heavy rail branch lines that would serve certain markets.  There was supposed to be a branch to Tucker and a branch to Hapeville, constructed as the system expanded.  Of course, with finances strained, theses two lines are not likely to be built any time soon and their possible presence has been dropped from MARTA maps.  The Green Line was the exception.

This line was called the Perry Homes line, one that would have continued several miles further to a public housing project called Perry Homes.  This 1,000 unit housing project, run by the Atlanta Housing Authority, sat on 152 acres of land in northwest Atlanta.  There were about 2,500 people living there, all of them from low-income families.  As the design process for the MARTA rail system developed, it was argued that such a location should have heavy rail public transit to get the residents to their jobs.

While the MARTA heavy rail system was being built, Perry Homes had devolved into a crime ridden nightmare.  People there were afraid to go out at night.  The long term goals for the heavy rail system were to complete both the east/west Blue Line, but also the north/south Orange line (as it was called at that time).  In particular, the north/south line needed to be completed to the Atlanta Airport.  If for no other reason than it made it easier for visitors to come to downtown Atlanta when they arrived in town.

At about the same time, there was strong political pressure to build the Green line to Perry Homes, so that low income people could get to their jobs.  And, thus, the Green Line started construction after a design phase.  Meanwhile, Perry Homes was slowly going out of business.  By the time that construction crews had arrived at the Bankhead Station site, the AHA had announced that it was closing Perry Homes, but by then, it was too late to stop.  What was once Perry Homes is now a wide expanse of open rolling hills.  The Perry Homes Branch was quietly renamed the Proctor Creek Branch without fanfare.

A residential development in a small area formerly occupied by Perry Homes, called the West Highlands, has been started but there will never be enough traffic to justify the construction costs of any further extension of the Green Line.  So, the Green Line stands as a monument to political pressure in rapid transit matters.  Any public project is subject to this sort of pressure, but it comes fraught with negative possibilities.

The Costs

The Atlanta Trolley Project will be a major undertaking, with lots of infrastructure costs.  As has been pointed out by others, the mere act of installing the track will be a major undertaking.

Canal Street Construction - New Orleans

And, since this trolley line is being built in the oldest part of Atlanta, there are sure to be surprises which will turn up during construction.  Old sewer lines, gas lines and other infrastructure will be discovered.  Maps of very old construction are notoriously inaccurate.  And, of course, as they dig into the pavement, they are sure to run into the rails of Atlanta’s original trolley system.  It is impossible to anticipate the actual costs of construction such as this, but there are sure to be overruns.

The proposed trolley project is also sure to include Project Labor Agreements.  The current administration has issued an Executive Order directing that Federal projects over $25 Million use these agreements.  There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that PLA’s result in massive cost increases over the life of the project.  One example is Boston’s Big Dig, which blossomed from $2.8 Billion to $22 Billion over the span of its work.

In short, we can anticipate that the project costs of this trolley project will grow higher before the work is completed.  The $47 Million on the Big Check is just the tip of the iceberg.

The Alternatives

Given that the transportation vehicle is going to look like an upside down bathtub anyway, there are at least two possible alternatives which are less costly than a full-fledged streetcar system.  Consider this upside down bathtub vehicle that is actually a bus underneath:

It certainly looks like a modern streetcar.  Or, if you just have got to have electric power and rails, how about settling for just one rail?  Such as this modern transit system in Padua, Italy:

Single Rail Transit, Padua, Italy

This single rail approach is now established technology.  It uses a central rail for vehicle guidance and for electric power return.  This system is being manufactured by two different vendors and there are at least five installations of these cars.  The “streetcar” rides on rubber tires, like a bus, but uses electricity like a streetcar.  One such system is Translohr.  The other is manufactured by Bombardier, an established contractor in the United States.

And, the less money that is spent on this particular streetcar project means that there is money left over to do more streetcar projects in Atlanta.

The Wild Ride

Regardless of the politicians’ public statements about this trolley ride to the King Center, they seem unwilling to call it what it really is.

An amusement park ride.

No reason to get into why they won’t say that, you already know the answer.  But if you’re going to operate an amusement park ride, why not call in the experts on the subject?

Disney.

Say what you will about the Disney concepts of entertainment, they know how to move people around.  They know how to keep people patient while they are waiting in line.  And, they know how to entertain.  Consider a possible Disney alternative to the Atlanta streetcar to the King Center:

Nancy Pelosi’s Wild Ride

As the ride crawls along, wild animals and scary spirits will leap out from the boarded up windows and doors of buildings along the way.  Momma grizzlies.  Lame ducks.  Yellow dogs.  Blue dogs.  Cut-outs of Newt Gingrich and Richard Nixon will scare the willies out of any visiting Scandinavian.  There will even be the ghost of William F. Buckley, all there for the entertainment of the visitor.  And, then the guests will spring off the ride in downtown Atlanta, safe and sound.  Sort of.

Hey, it could happen.  Remember that the Aquarium anticipates 3 million visitors…..

Why?

This project centers on your view of government.  For the union leader in a right-to-work state, this project is a blessing because it means union dues and expanded power.  For the politicians who have supported it, it means that they can brag to the voters that “I did something about the traffic problem” (even though this will have no effect on the Atlanta traffic problem).  For the vendors who contributed to political campaigns, it means an opportunity to get money back.  For the current administration, it means another opportunity to drone the meaningless mantra of “jobs created and saved”.  It all fits into the conventional political calculus.

Yet, for all that, this particular “transportation” project really has the town sputtering.  For the transportation advocates, this project is a waste of precious transit funding.  For the conservatives, it is a waste of financial resources.  For the garden variety taxpayer stuck in traffic, this is a needless project that will never benefit them personally.

It is a project built with money that we don’t have, to be used by people that we don’t know, serving a traffic route that barely exists, and one that does nothing to help a much larger problem.

One odd thing has come up.  There really hasn’t been much said about the Big Check:

After the Big Check was handed over, there was perfunctory coverage by several television stations, and a few words spoken on local radio stations, and a little print item back on page 6 of the B section of the Atlanta Journal Constitution newspaper.  And that’s been about it for announcing this great boondoggle.

And, it’s because everyone is getting the nagging feeling that there’s a real problem with how money is handled by Washington, DC.  Everybody loves their own Congressional representative; it’s all the other ones that are the problem.  With this project comes the realization that maybe its our own Representatives, too.  Everybody gripes about Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere”, but now we realize that we have one, too.  And, there are Bridges to Nowhere all over this great country, and their collective weight is dragging this country down.

We cannot afford this useless project.  It is not too late to return that Big Check and hope that things will be better tomorrow.

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