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Streetcars return to Atlanta

Atlanta is the State Capital and largest city in the US State of Georgia. The city proper has a population of around 400 000 but is part of a total population of around five million in the surrounding Metropolitan Area – the ninth largest conurbation in the US.

Planning for the first streetcars began after the American Civil War ended in 1865 as the city had been destroyed by fire and was rapidly being rebuilt. The first horse-drawn streetcar lines were incorporated in 1872 and lasted until electrification, which took place gradually between 1895 and the early years of the 20th Century. There had been a number of conversions from horse to steam power using small locomotives – electrification swept these away too. Electric streetcar service finally succumbed to motorbuses or trolleybuses in 1949; the latter lasted until 1963 before being replaced by diesel vehicles.

MARTA (Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) was created by legislation in 1965 by the State of Georgia, yet it was not until 1972 that MARTA was in a position to purchase the assets of the existing bus operation for around USD13m. It was always the expectation that a heavy rail metro-type operation would be developed and the first section of the east-west route opened in 1979.

The metro continued to expand over the next 30 years, resulting in two basic lines, one running east-west with the other running on a north-south alignment with its southern terminus at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Each route splits into two branches. Although originally set up to provide service in the five counties making up the metropolitan area, initially only two counties – DeKalb and Fulton – along with the city of Atlanta supported MARTA financially by means of a one-cent sales tax – thus MARTA generally only provided service in these counties.

However, this situation changed in November 2014 when voters in Clayton County overwhelmingly approved a referendum to levy a one-cent sales tax to join MARTA by a 3-to-1 margin. On 21 March, MARTA launched bus service in Clayton County and the transit agency is seeking to introduce a high-capacity transit option in the county – such as commuter rail or bus-rapid transit – over the next decade.

By the early 21st Century the City of Atlanta realised that public transportation needed something more, and looked to an LRT solution to bolster the central core transport provision. A modern streetcar was seen as the most suitable option, particularly in view of developments in other US cities where streetcars were being either constructed as feeders to the main LRT system, as in Dallas, or standalone systems such as those being built in Cincinnati and Kansas City.

The streetcar makes a comeback

The first line to be built was a 4.3km (2.7-mile) city circulator linking Centennial Olympic Park with the Martin Luther King Jr Historic District, providing a connection to the MARTA subway at Peachtree Center. The 12-stop line operates on a single-track alignment in an anti-clockwise loop, while both sides of the loop are very close at Woodruff Park where there is a crossover. The car depot and maintenance centre is located underneath the 12-lane I-75/I-85 freeway, and is linked to eastbound and westbound tracks at Auburn and Edgewood Avenues.

Four Siemens S70 LRVs have been acquired for the service, under a contract worth approximately USD17m signed in May 2011. Whilst largely built in California – the propulsion systems are manufactured at Siemens’ facility in Alpharetta, just north of Atlanta – and similar to S70 vehicles in use on the Sugar House line in Salt Lake City, they have been further modified locally before delivery to Atlanta. Operating on standard gauge track with power drawn from the overhead at 750v DC, the 24.1m bi-directional, double-articulated streetcars are 70% low-floor with a powered truck at each end and a central non-powered truck. This gives a maximum operating speed of 56km/h (35mph), although in practice the operational speeds are actually much lower.

The USD92m (EUR82m) project is a joint venture between the City of Atlanta (USD32.6m), the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District (ADID, USD6m) and MARTA. Additional funds came from TIGER II grants totalling USD47.6m, and USD6.5m from the Atlanta Regional Commission.

It was announced before the opening date of 31 December 2014 that no fares would be charged for an initial three-month period, with a USD1 fare then collected through the city’s Breeze card. However on 31 March, Mayor Kasim Reed revealed that the fare-free period was to be extended until the end of the year. Speaking to local media, Mayor Reed said: “We should let the Atlanta Streetcar become a habit… I’m confident we can have an app that can work better than the Breeze card.”

Of course cynics could argue the only reason such an operation currently attracts passengers (even though ridership is well below projections) is that no fares are charged – on both trips taken by the author the cars were well loaded – but the city authorities claim that the Streetcar is on track to meet its 2015 budget even without the projected USD300 000 in fare revenue. Regeneration and development along the route is estimated to total an impressive USD840m in the five years since the project’s inception.

The operation appears not to be used to its full potential however, and TAUT understands that a shortage of qualified operators has led to the current frequency reduction – this in itself seems odd for a system that has been open for six months. It is believed that the City, responsible for operations, changed its driver certification requirements at the last minute. There is no signal priority at junctions. This is exacerbated by the traffic management system not always recognising the presence of the streetcar, resulting in vehicles having to wait for two or three cycles before being allowed to proceed.

There is also a problem with the education of the automobile-driving public, with well-publicised service delays attributed to drivers driving and parking poorly and obstructing the single-track alignment.

Most of the above can be regarded as easily-fixed teething troubles, however, provided there is a management will to rectify them.

Ambitious future plans

The system has great potential for growth, with political will to create a wider multi-line 101km (63-mile) network with a core loop service linked to the Atlanta Beltline service and cross-city links. Although this is still in the planning stage, the prospect of growth is attracting widespread support and current plans estimate that the full 101km (62.8-mile) double-tracked system – to be built in four construction segments – would cost in the region of USD3.65bn.

Phase 1 is planned as a north-east – south-west alignment crossing the city to the north of downtown with links to both ends of the existing loop. This 18km (11.3-mile) segment is projected to cost USD661m.

Phase 2 is planned to be three short stretches of track further extending the Phase I build; the total distance is 12.6km (7.9 miles) at an estimated cost of USD497m. Phase 3 is somewhat bigger, which provides for some infill and branches beyond the ring. This phase covers 24.5km (15.6 miles) and is estimated to cost just under USD1bn. The final 40km (25 miles) is the largest phase, completing the ring and adding further branches and estimated to cost USD1.5bn. The end result will be a dense streetcar network, designed to aid regeneration of the inner city. Other aspects include affordable housing, walking trails and dedicated green spaces. Four separate tax districts have been set up to enable the local funding element, although this will only cover a relatively small proportion of the total costs, with the majority derived from federal sources.

Funding is not yet in place and there are no timescales for the phases, although there is a 2030 target for full completion. Given the difficulties and delays associated with the first small loop, it is difficult to believe that this date is anything but ambitious.

MARTA Subway

The excellent heavy rail rapid transit system is now 79km (48 miles) long with 38 stations, and operates as four colour-coded routes with two on each of the north-south and east-west alignments. The biggest traffic objective here is the airport, located at the southern end of the north – south Red and Gold lines.

The Red line runs through the city to North Springs; the Gold line shares its tracks as far as the Lindbergh Center stop where it diverges north-east to Doraville. The main east – west route is the Blue line from Indian Creek to Hamilton E. Holmes. This is supplemented by the Green line which shares track from Edgewood/Candler Park to the east of the city to Ashby in the west where it diverges north-west to Bankhead. All alignments intersect at the subterranean Five Points station in the heart of the city. MARTA operates 505 buses on 91 routes and 338 railcars.

All lines run to ten-minute headways during the Monday to Friday peak, reduced to every 12 minutes at midday and every 20 minutes in the evenings and at weekends. After 21.00 the Red line operates only as a shuttle between North Springs and Lindbergh where there is cross-platform transfer to the Gold line.

MARTA operates a flat fare system using the rechargeable Breeze card that can be used on both rail and the extensive bus network; there are entry and exit gates at all stations where there are ticket machines. Atlanta was the first city in the USA to 100% adopt stored value cards in 2007, and according to MARTA the average farebox recovery is around 33% with the balance coming from the sales tax.

MARTA rolling stock is made up of three types: 120 cars were procured from Société Franco-Belge (now Alstom) during the period 1978-82; a further 120 cars were supplied by Hitachi during the mid-1980s; the final batch was delivered between 2001 and 2005 by AnsaldoBreda. Cars from the first two batches were refurbished at Alstom’s Hornell facility in New York in the early years of the 21st Century in two deals worth around USD265m.

Trains generally operate in four- or six-car formations although all station platforms have been built to accommodate eight-car trains. The system uses automatic train operation although each driving car has manual driving facilities, with 750v DC current collection via the third rail.

View from the top

Speaking to TAUT, MARTA’s Chief Operating Officer Richard A Krisak acknowledged “growing pains” with re-introducing streetcars in a dense urban environment from which they had been absent for more than 60 years. Whilst a partner in the scheme, MARTA has been mandated by federal regulators to provide oversight of the Streetcar for at least one year as part of an intergovernmental agreement between the agency and the City of Atlanta. After that time, the city is expected to assume full control of the Streetcar’s operations.

Krisak became more animated when talking about development plans for MARTA rail services, explaining that three of the seven corridors under examination are progressing beyond the conceptual stage. The Clifton corridor is planned as a light rail link between Lindbergh station on the Red/Gold lines, running tangentially south-east to the Blue line Avondale station and including the recasting of bus services to feed the LRT link.

The second corridor under development is an extension of the Red line subway alongside or in the median of the GA 400 freeway to Windward Parkway. The I-20 East project is more complex as it involves a heavy rail extension of the Blue line from Indian Creek to Stonecrest Mall. From there, a direct BRT route is planned to downtown Atlanta. However, none of these projects can proceed without funding, explained Krisak, stating that FTA grants (which provide up to 50% match funding) are becoming more difficult to obtain. The anticipated solution is to apply for federal TIGER grants, which can often require a greater local contribution. Although the issue is made more problematic by the State of Georgia’s refusal to fund public transport, Krisak remains upbeat about these projects.

Summing up, whilst expressing concern about the ageing rail fleet – despite recent programmes, the older vehicles have less than 15 years life left in them – he remains positive about the future for transit in the city.

Thanks to Rick Krisak and Lyle Harris of MARTA.

From a feature that originally appeared in Tramways & Urban Transit – August 2015 issue (932).