The expansion of the streetcar from downtown to the Atlanta Beltline Eastside Trail and Ponce City Market comes despite concerns from some residents who say their neighborhoods and businesses will be damaged by the construction of the light rail route.
Brian Hobbs, MARTA’s streetcar project manager, told a group of a dozen people at a recent Streetcar Impact Town Hall that an estimated The $230 million project was moving forward. Construction is expected to begin next year and be completed by 2027.
“This project is going forward unless we’re told otherwise,” Hobbs told a town hall crowd Feb. 23 at the historic Haugabrooks Funeral Home on Auburn Avenue in the Old Fourth Ward. A part of the existing tram runs in front of the site.
“We heard from the mayor’s office that this is a project they want to see moving forward. This is a project that MARTA wants to move forward with,” he said.
MARTA’s board recently voted in favor of a request for an engineer to increase the streetcar expansion project from 30% to 100%, though some stakeholders and community members question whether it’s the best use of money.
The extension will run nearly a mile down Edgewood Avenue, to Randolph Street, along Auburn Avenue to Irwin Street, where it connects with the Eastside Trail. From Irvine Street, the streetcar route will continue north to Ponce City Market. Five stops are planned.
The alignment won’t change, Hobbs said, but there will be time for more community engagement to try to mitigate concerns about construction and traffic impacts.
Fred Duncan, who lives near the Beltline, represents about 350 homeowners living along the proposed route who oppose the project. The streetcar extension will cut through a historic neighborhood with narrow streets and disrupt the quality of life for those hundreds of homeowners, he said.
“Atlanta is a car town,” he said. “The tram is now backing up traffic. Spending $230 million on 2.3 miles is a waste of money. This project has been a huge albatross from the start.”
Julia Neighbors, a member of the Historic District Development Corporation, which owns Haugabrooks Funeral Home, said she lives on Randolph Street. She said MARTA’s community outreach was “performative” to only reach a broad swath of the community that was appalled by the “sexy, vanity project.”
Property owners along the route — those in the community directly affected by the expansion — have been largely left out of the conversation, she said.
Devon Woodson, president of the Fourth & SAND Neighborhood Association and owner of Pals Lounge on Auburn Avenue, said his business was able to survive when the Atlanta streetcar was built only because he owns his building. Other businesses around him were forced to close because the construction didn’t bring in customers. He predicted the same would happen to existing Auburn Avenue small businesses when the expansion project gets underway.
Also, the current streetcar is mostly empty and doesn’t bring money to existing businesses, Woodson said. He said MARTA and the city should provide some of the funding for the project to compensate the Auburn Avenue community that will suffer from years of construction.
Matthew Rao is the chairman of Beltline Rail Now, an advocacy group advocating for light rail on the Atlanta Beltline. At City Hall, he said the streetcar extension is critical to addressing gridlock along the Beltline corridor.
He also said it is important to remember history. When Ryan Gravel envisioned the Beltline and grassroots movements pushed political leaders to approve it, light rail was always part of the Beltline’s DNA, he said. In 2016, voters overwhelmingly approved the More MARTA half-cent sales tax to pay for numerous projects, including the Beltline.
“The expansion will bring equity and mobility in an environmentally friendly way,” he said. “The longer we wait, the more expensive the project will become and the harder it will be for our leaders to build what we voted for.”
Councilman Amir Farokhi, whose district includes the streetcar, said the Old Fourth Ward area is the “most transit-rich” part of Atlanta. Extending the streetcar to destinations and employment centers “reflects the equity” the city wants to create, he said.
Mike Green, senior vice president of Portman Holdings, said his company has invested about $220 million in the construction of the mixed-use office building. Junction Krog area at 667 Auburn Ave. on Eastside Trail and acquiring about an acre of property across the street. A tram route is planned to be laid between the two sections.
“What attracted us, like other developers, to the Beltline was the pedestrian activity, not the fact that there would be transit,” Green said.
“Most of us [developers] thought transit was pie in the sky,” he added, to gasps from some in the audience.
Portman Holdings, like any other developer, wants to make sure the streetcar doesn’t disturb pedestrians, he said. Millions of people use the Eastside Trail each year and spend money at restaurants and other businesses along the Beltline, including the Ponce City Market.
Without pedestrians, Portman’s investment in the Eastside Trail could suffer because it won’t be able to attract ground-floor retail tenants, Green said. The company is also concerned about how the streetcar route will affect that development’s direct access to the Atlanta Beltline, he said.
Old Fourth Ward and Inman Park homeowners along the route formed Tram Impact Team urging MARTA to consider alternative routes and modes of transportation other than the streetcar. More than 600 homeowners in the area signed a petition urging MARTA to consider other options.
Homeowner Jennifer Bentson said in an interview that the group consists of those who live on Edgewood Avenue, Randolph Street, Auburn Avenue, the Studioplex, Irwin Avenue and along the BeltLine itself.
“There are other alternatives to the streetcar,” Bentson said. “Why are we tearing up streets and installing overhead wires when our streetcar has been out of service for months?”
At the end of last year, the streetcar in Atlanta was discontinued $400,000 in renovations and plans to resume passenger service this week.
One alternative proposed by the group is Beep, an autonomous shuttle currently in use in Peachtree Corners, Jacksonville, Florida, Yellowstone, Wyoming, and other locations. Bentson said MARTA’s response was that it didn’t make sense for the project.
“We’re not against public transit or even putting it on the BeltLine, but it doesn’t make sense to spend that much money without evidence that the number of streetcars will grow,” Bentson said.
Last fall, MARCH closed part of Irvine Street on the BeltLine examine the impact of redesigning a portion of the pedestrian-only corridor and rerouting traffic. “We understand that things went wrong, but we have not been able to get any data from MARTA,” Bentson said.
Rough Draft reached out to MARTA about the Irwin Street study, but has not heard back.