Atlanta Streetcars

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The communications director for Atlanta Streetcar Inc. today talks with me about progress on the new transit line, scheduled to begin service later this year. She also sheds some light on her background and what brought her to Atlanta to work for the streetcar project. In our second piece, a young Auburn Avenue business owner shares the demands of a local business group that wants some financial relief for the losses they endured during construction.

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“…because they work”

By Tom Sabulis

Sharon Gavin, communications director for Atlanta Streetcar, doesn’t blink when asked if she’s ready for any criticism that may come her way if, and when, something goes wrong with the city’s new transit system, scheduled to begin service later this year.

In a previous job, she spent five years as spokeswoman for Diablo Canyon, a nuclear power plant in California, so she’s dealt with a few critics in her time.

On a recent morning in downtown’s Fairlie-Poplar District, where she rents an apartment in the 101-year-old Healey Building, Gavin talked about her first days in Atlanta — she moved here in December from Monterey, Calif. — and final preparations for the streetcar. The line will run along a 2.7-mile loop between Centennial Olympic Park and the Martin Luther King Jr. historic district.

When the streetcars will go into service: Sometime later this year. We got the first two streetcars delivered in February; we have the second two cars being delivered this week. Each car has to go through testing in the vehicle maintenance facility to get them ready to go out on the rails. The good news is that when we do start service, people will be able to ride the Atlanta Streetcar for free for the first three months. We feel this will encourage more people to try the streetcars and will bring them to areas and businesses they were not aware of before, so it will really be a benefit for everyone.

When test runs will take place: Probably some time in June. The first test runs may be done in the evening, when there’s less traffic. It will give Atlanta drivers a chance to interact with the streetcar, and streetcar drivers a chance to get used to Atlanta traffic. In the meantime, we’re focusing on our safety messaging — doing presentations at schools, businesses and community groups. We want pedestrians, motorists and bicyclists to be aware that when they’re in the streetcar area, they need to pay attention to their surroundings. We also have specific messaging for bicyclists when they’re near the tracks or crossing them, so their tires don’t get caught. (See “How to Ride the Streetcar” at http://www.theatlantastreetcar.com)

Her urban outlook: I love big cities. I love anything to do with the redevelopment of big cities. I’m just a city person. To me, this was the perfect thing for me to do right now. I’m having a little love affair with Atlanta. I’m super excited about bringing a streetcar in. I chose to live downtown so I could get rid of my car and take the streetcar to go shopping, which is really the only thing I use my car for these days.

On potential riders: The Atlanta Streetcar will most certainly be used by conventioneers and tourists. But it’s also a transit system for people like me who live or work downtown. It has connections to MARTA and the regional bus systems. People can take it go someplace for lunch that might be a little too far to walk. I really like the restaurants along Edgewood Avenue. There are some cool places there. Right now, I can’t go to some of those places at night because I can’t find parking. But I could take the streetcar there, go out to dinner, and not worry about driving or parking.

Streetcar safety at night: I believe they will be safe. We’re working with the Atlanta police, and we’ll have downtown ambassadors assigned to the streetcars. (Streetcars will run until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 p.m. other days.) The streetcars have a number of cameras on them, both inside and out. The operator can see exactly what’s going throughout the train. The cameras are also outside, so if there’s an incident with traffic, there’s always a recording of that. The operators will have a direct line to their dispatcher, if anything does happen on board.

New streetcar appeal: Look at who’s moving into the city now. It’s empty nesters and young professionals. The empty nesters want to simplify, and young professionals are starting out. A lot of people today are looking for ways to live more sustainably, buying smaller cars, using their cars less or not having cars at all. The streetcar is really going to help. I see that as such a forward-looking thing for a city this size. Los Angeles is now considering putting back its streetcars. Cities all across the country are doing this because they work.

Business owners want relief

By Devon Woodson

The Historic Auburn Avenue Business and Property Owners Group represents those whose interests in Atlanta’s historic Auburn Avenue have been adversely affected by the construction of the Atlanta Streetcar project.

The Atlanta Streetcar project cost upwards of $90 million dollars to complete. This budget was to include everything from utility relocation to the purchase of additional vehicles, which allows for further expansion of the transit system when warranted. It did not, however, include any provisions to address, compensate or assist the community being impacted by this project.

Essentially, the community most affected by construction has been abandoned.

The business and property owners group supports the streetcar’s overarching purpose, particularly as it relates to the re-development and preservation of this historic community. However, the prolonged closure of Auburn has had an overwhelmingly negative impact on the financial well-being of the community.

Since 2012, construction has crippled business parking and pedestrian traffic, creating a noisy, dust-ridden environment that has prevented and deterred essential customer access. Further, the infrastructures of several buildings in the neighborhood are aggressively deteriorating — a consequence of the constant bulldozing, drilling and excavating of the streets while replacing utilities and laying streetcar tracks. The community has been informed of construction schedules through emails and monthly meetings, but there have been no efforts to address the severe financial impact of sustained construction.

Our group is the voice of this historic community speaking out against a modern form of economic injury and disenfranchisement. We believe the progress of this once-vibrant and rich community begins with the welfare of its people. The history of Auburn Avenue, a centerpiece of Atlanta tourism, must not be compromised by the influx or growth of re-development projects. The community must be lifted up alongside the corporate development to remain true to the ideals and legacy of one of Atlanta’s most important and influential communities.

Thus, the Historic Auburn Avenue Business and Property Owners Group seeks:

• Compensation for loss of needed due to Atlanta Streetcar project construction from 2012 to 2014.

• An abatement of property taxes assessed during the streetcar construction period.

• Grant opportunities, and low-interest loans from the city of Atlanta, Atlanta Downtown Improvement District and Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, to assist owners along the project corridor to rehabilitate and repair property damage from the prolonged construction.

Similar forms of consideration and support have been provided to communities in other cities where installation of streetcars and other urban rail caused significant disruption. We point to Washington, D.C.’s program during construction of its subway system, as well as that of Portland, Ore.

Atlanta has always had a progressive, forward-looking approach to economic and community development. It has also been mindful of the rich cultural and civic history of its neighborhoods, including downtown. Historic Auburn Avenue is an integral part of the fabric of downtown Atlanta, and it deserves support.

Devon Woodson owns Pal’s Lounge on Auburn Avenue.


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