ATLANTA -- Atlanta isn't known for its love of public transit, but the Southern capital is hoping to be the latest city to get residents and tourists on board with a $94 million streetcar project that supporters say will create jobs, promote economic development and transform the region's approach to transportation.
Mayor Kasim Reed and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood broke ground Wednesday on the streetcar line, which will be funded in part by a $47.6 million federal grant awarded to the city in 2010. Reed said the project stands as Atlanta's largest single federal award outside of the airport and the city's transit authority in more than a decade.
"Our aim is to have the most modern transportation system of any city in the South," Reed said, citing the success of similar projects in cities like Seattle, Charlotte, N.C., Portland, Ore., and Houston.
When complete in 2013, the streetcar will run on a 2.6-mile route with stops at major attractions including the World of Coca-Cola, the CNN Center, the Georgia Aquarium and the historic Auburn Avenue district, home to the birthplace of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The project is a light rail, modern approach to streetcars -- which the city hasn't had since 1949 -- and connects Atlanta's downtown corridor with a long-depressed economic area seen for decades as part of Atlanta's past, not its future.
LaHood said the rail line could be the foundation for businesses from souvenir shops and restaurants to grocery stores -- new neighbors in an area where funeral homes and churches have been the mainstay tenants.
"This is about jobs, this is about creating an economic corridor, this is about showcasing a very historic part of America," LaHood said. "The sustainability of this will go on for years. This will be a magnet for tourism and small business."
The Old Fourth Ward neighborhood is home to King's birthplace, as well as the church where he preached and his burial site. All are huge tourist draws, but most visitors come to the area to see the attractions. The experience is a contrast from visitors to the other main downtown attractions, which are clustered together near hotels and places to eat.
"What we are seeing is finally an investment by the federal government that will take us in a positive direction," said city Councilman Kwanza Hall, whose district will include the streetcar route. "The last big federal investments that happened on Auburn Avenue were those that created the (highway) in the early 1960s and mid-1980s. These investments really destroyed the small businesses that were very vibrant."
The interstate bisected Auburn Avenue, which had been a hub of black wealth and culture.
The streetcar is funded through a public-private partnership that also includes a $15 million commitment from the city and $6 million from the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District. It is seen as the first stake in the ground for long-term transportation-based projects in the Atlanta area that include the BeltLine, a project to create a network of public parks, trails, and transit connecting 45 neighborhoods along an existing 22-mile rail line.
If a regional transportation referendum headed to Georgia voters later this year passes, some of the money could help pay to connect the two projects. It's unclear whether the ballot issue will pass, though the mayor and governor have signaled their support for the issue.
Reed said the streetcar is part of a strategy to move Atlanta away from its penchant for cars -- especially as younger residents have moved to Atlanta, making the city more pedestrian, bike-friendly and open to public transportation. But it also hearkens back to a simpler era, providing a nostalgic appeal that also pays homage to the city's history.
"A streetcar gives people a feeling that you can go pback to the past," LaHood said. "There's a novelty about them. It's a fun form of transportation."
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