ATLANTA — A senior MARTA executive tells Channel 2 Action News he’s confident extending the Streetcar East to the Beltline will be successful and will improve the lagging ridership that has plagued the streetcar system for years. The transit agency took over the problem-plagued system from the city of Atlanta in 2018. Investigative reporter Richard Belcher says it’s just right to describe the Streetcar as struggling, since former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed championed the initial loop that cost nearly $100 million and populated downtown with a small fleet of sleek, $4 million streetcars that were too often entirely empty.
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The reasoning for the east-west loop was to take people from the King Center on the eastern end to the collection of entertainment venues such as the Georgia Aquarium, College Football Hall of Fame and State Farm Arena on the western end; but it hasn’t worked very well.
During the year ending June 30, 2022, the Streetcar carried just 138,000 passengers. That’s 85% below the ridership the Reed administration originally forecast. And it’s not just the pandemic. In 2019, Channel 2 reported that the Streetcar had 207,000 passengers. That was 78% below the original forecast.
The financial side isn’t much better. In the past year, total Streetcar revenue (fares and advertising) was about $149,000. That’s about 4% of the cost of running the system for a year. MARTA estimates that will be $3.7 million this year.
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By comparison, MARTA’s buses and trains generate about 30% of the annual budget for their systems.
So why spend an estimated $170 million to expand a system that has struggled for eight years?
I am betting on this as a winner,” says MARTA Interim CEO George Wright. He says a critical difference in the expansion will be getting out of traffic once the streetcars are on the Beltline.
“We’re in mixed traffic (on the current route), so we’re dealing with cars. We’re dealing with pedestrians. That would be different in a Beltline proposition,” Wright told Channel 2, but he admits there is no guarantee the streetcars will have a dedicated lane getting from the eastern end of existing route to the Beltline.
“That’s what we’d love to have, and we would need the city’s help to do that. We would like that in the current alignment, but yes, we would like still have some mixed traffic,” Wright says.
MARTA estimates daily ridership will rise to 3,000 once the extension is completed, but Wright says that is a pre-pandemic estimate.
Channel 2′s Richard Belcher noted that the new estimate is higher than the 2,600-per-day estimate the city made and never reached.
“We are taking another look at those (new estimates), and we could adjust those, but we are confident that we will see a ridership result which is much better than what we have now,” he said.
Wright says lower ridership is partly caused by fare jumpers — people who ride but don’t pay — and MARTA doesn’t currently have enough police to stop that.
“We’re hoping as that improves, we would have more fare monitoring and make sure that people are honoring fare policy and paying their fare,” he told Channel 2.
MARTA is hoping to begin construction on the expansion in 2024 and open the line three years later.
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