Atlanta Beltline or Atlanta Streetcar?

Unfortunately, some Atlantans believe it’s an either/or choice.

But if both projects compete against each other, Atlanta loses.

What many people fail to realize is that both projects are complementary and interdependent. Any progress that can be made with either project should be welcomed by advocates of the both.

The latest tension between both projects surfaced last month when TIGER II (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) federal grant applications were being prepared for both projects.

The Atlanta Streetcar’s application was for $52 million with a $20 million local match — $10 million from the City of Atlanta and $10 million from the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. The proposal called for a 2.6 mile East-West loop connecting Centennial Olympic Park and the King Center along Edgewood and Auburn avenues.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Beltline Inc. was preparing a $13.2 million application for the TIGER II grants to build trails along parts of what will be a 33-mile network of trails along a ring that will encircle the central city.

But Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who chairs the ABI board, urged Beltline officials to withdraw their application.

In an interview last week, Reed explained why he didn’t want to seek these federal dollars for the Beltline project.

“I thought we were diluting our ability to get a significant funding request by having multiple grant requests,” Reed said. By having two City of Atlanta applications — one for $52 million and another for $13.2 million — then federal officials could have “checked the box” next to Atlanta’s name by funding the less ambitious application.

Instead, Reed thought that if Atlanta submitted its streetcar application, the City would have a decent chance in getting the full $52 million.

This is the second time that the City has applied for TIGER dollars for the streetcar. The first time, the City’s application was for nearly $300 million with no local match. That proposal called for the East-West loop as well as the streetcar line connecting downtown with Midtown.

But Atlanta was completely shut out of the first round of TIGER dollars (in fact, not one of the dozens of applications from Georgia communities was successful).

Since that experience, Reed and his team did some debriefing with federal officials to find out why Atlanta’s streetcar application was not funded.

“We really focused on the feedback that we got in the debriefing,” Reed said. “I think we are in a much better position than we were before. Going for a $300 million grant with no local match — that was a criticism of the City of Atlanta’s application. The fact that we are putting up a $20 million match for a $52 million application makes us feel reasonably good.”

Reed also said he’s been laying the foundation to enhance the City’s relationship with federal officials in Washington, D.C.

He has been meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Reed said he also is on the transportation committee of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which gives him an opportunity to meet regularly with leaders from the U.S. DOT.

Asked about Atlanta’s chances this time around, Reed said: “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

But Reed said his endorsement of the Atlanta Streetcar application in no way reflects any diminished commitment for his support of the Atlanta Beltline project.

“Don’t misread my decision as any lack of faith in the Atlanta Beltline,” Reed said.

In addition, Reed said he is using his positions of influence to help position the Atlanta Beltline for future federal funding. He has been giving Beltline bus tours to key officials, including a recent two hour tour with U.S Sen. Saxby Chambliss.

Reed chairs the Regional Transit Committee of the Atlanta Regional Commission, and he is on the local roundtable decision-making group that will come up with the transportation project list for how the regional penny sales tax would be allocated.

“We are aggressively pushing to fund the Atlanta Beltline,” Reed explained.

Phil Kent, chairman of the Atlanta Committee for Progress who has been helping raise private dollars for the Beltline, said the City hopes the Beltline will be able to get much more than $13.2 million that it was seeking in the TIGER II application.

So far, the Beltline has raised $35.5 million of its $60 million campaign goal, and Kent said he has seen uptick in donations as the economy has stabilized.

At the Beltline Networking group last week, ABI President Brian Leary said he agreed to go along with the mayor’s decision to not go after TIGER grant funding in this round, although several Beltline advocates clearly were not convinced that it was the right way to go.

“The federal playing field is where we need to be,” Leary said, explaining that the original Beltline model relied heavily on using tax allocation district funding. But the economic recession has brought real estate development to a complete stop, turning off the spigot for TAD dollars. “I made a commitment to the board — we are going to look behind every tree.”

But Leary said the Beltline had a strong TIGER application, but he agreed with the decision to withdraw the request at the last minute.

“Atlanta is well poised to be a winner in the next round of TIGER,” Leary said of the Atlanta Streetcar’s chances this time around.

Most importantly, the City presented a unified strategy rather than pitting one project against another.

(Earlier this decade, there was a destructive effort by a few City officials who tried unsuccessfully to shift the federal dollars allocated to commuter rail and the Multimodal station downtown to the Beltline. That was a flawed strategy that ended up hurting both projects).

The bottom line is that we need both the streetcar and the Beltline (and commuter rail and the Multimodal station) to create a web of transit options in the City of Atlanta.

So it’s not either/or. It’s both — in due time.

Reprinted with persmission from the Saporta Report.