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Atlanta Streetcar Gets New Owner to Take on Old Problems

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

In June, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the city’s transit authority would take over streetcar operations from the city itself. This week, plans for that transfer got the official green light from the Atlanta City Council. The transfer will take place next year and include staffing and maintenance, along with operations.

The authority, MARTA, has said that it will pay for operations with funds from a half-penny sales tax approved by Atlanta voters in November, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports. Reed has also suggested that the streetcar will eventually be free to ride once again. Boarding cost nothing when the streetcar opened in December of 2014, but the city eventually raised fares to $1, at which point ridership fell nearly 60 percent, according to the paper.

“I think we will be shifting to it being free, we are just trying to look at the right timing for that,” Reed reportedly said in June. “When we look at our peer cities, their streetcars are typically free and they are designed to encourage investment along the corridor.”

The system has a troubled history, including an extensive state audit alongside lower-than-expected ridership. As Next City has covered, the Georgia Department of Transportation cited staffing issues and lax security in its scathing review, and alleged that accidents were not properly investigated or reported. The state agency went so far as to threaten shutting the streetcar down. The city was able to fix the system’s problems and bring it up to state standards in June.

The streetcar also been the subject of harsh words between Reed and the Journal-Constitution. After the paper published a critical piece on the project earlier this year, Reed’s office fired back, calling the story “anti-transit” and accusing its writer of taking sides in the region’s still-intractable urban-suburban transportation divide — a rift heavily fueled by the Atlanta metro’s history of structural racism.

In June, Reed also talked about expanding the streetcar line to the Atlanta BeltLine (which is weathering its own administrative shakeup). He did not say when that expansion would take place, according to the Journal-Constitution. In an interview with the paper that same month, Atlanta Public Works Commissioner William Johnson said that a connection would take years.