In a letter to Mayor Kasim Reed and MARTA CEO Keith Parker on Monday, the Georgia Department of Transportation gave the city until June 14 to submit plans to address 60 outstanding problems outlined in the reports. If those plans are not sufficient, GDOT said, it will order the streetcar to shut down immediately.
The city and MARTA share responsibility for the $98 million system that runs in downtown Atlanta. State and federal law requires GDOT to oversee the safety and security of rail operations like the streetcar, GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry said.
The problems with the streetcar include poor maintenance procedures, inadequate staffing and a failure to properly investigate accidents.
McMurry said in the letter that, since the service started in December 2014, streetcar officials have failed to “provide timely, substantive and compliant responses to deficiencies identified by the department and (Federal Transportation Authority).”
I haven’t written much about the debacle that is the Atlanta Street Car. I have supported most efforts thus far to improve metro Atlanta’s transit network as part of a comprehensive transportation/congestion relief plan. The streetcar is not only a tough sell based on return on investment based on competing uses for funds, but it’s construction and implementation have been a textbook case of poor planning, under budgeting, stiffing contractors, even worse execution, and political tone deafness for this “solution” from the Mayor’s office all the way to the White House.
Let’s first make one point very clear. The statement “the City and MARTA share responsibility” is technically correct, but MARTA didn’t ask for this. They are now, however, stuck with it. And therein lies a large part of the problem.
MARTA has done yeoman’s work in fixing its financials, service record, and overall image. We now have a transit agency that the area can be proud of. It’s earned the responsibility to make long term capital investments in rail expansion, with the immediate step to fill an urban core within the city of Atlanta.
There is an evolving discussion at the state level of regional transit and how best to solve these mobility issues for a metro area of 5 Million people. This same metro area will likely have 7-8 Million people within a quarter century. That same quarter century is the planning horizon needed to build out a system of trains, express buses, additional toll lanes, and other forms of transportation to move those of us that are here now, as well as the future residents that are moving here at a rate of about 100,000 new Georgians per year.
It is time for Gwinnett to consider a second look. Despite the current political environment, folks in Cobb will be watching expansion efforts and financing models closely. (Settle down Cherokee and Fayette residents, no one is talking about bringing MARTA to you – especially MARTA).
Why does all of this matter? Because to the critics – especially those that fear MARTA moving closer to their counties – the Street Car can and will be used as an example of why we don’t need additional transit dollars. Bluntly, the city of Atlanta sees the Street Car as an economic development opportunity for the Sweet Auburn district. The opportunity transit critics see is to make it a poster child for transit boondoggles, and a way to stop expansion in its tracks.
The City of Atlanta has to get this street car fixed, or cut their losses. Continuing with the status quo only makes this train The Little Engine That Shouldn’t, and expansion beyond the existing MARTA footprint more difficult.
And with that, we will leave you with an interpretation of GDOT’s directive on the Street Car:
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