Editor’s note: Jack Daniel Summer, a metro Atlanta attorney who specializes in transportation litigation, supports the idea of BeltLine rail but also understands opposition to it. Inspired by a recent trip to the Big Easy, Summer makes the case below that an aesthetic change for Atlanta Streetcar vehicles—echoing New Orleans and yesteryear Atlanta—could boost ridership and help Atlantans find a happy medium. He writes:

The proposed Streetcar East Extension project is extremely divisive among Atlanta residents today. But does it have to be?

Supporters contend the streetcar expansion will ease congestion of gridlocked corridors and ensure that businesses along the BeltLine can continue to thrive in increasingly dense and high-traffic areas. Detractors argue MARTA, the BeltLine, and Atlanta’s Department of Transportation are forcing more streetcar lines upon Atlanta residents—a plan that requires hundreds of millions in public dollars, massive alterations to residential streets, and significant greenspace removal. Switching back to the yeasayer perspective, opponents of these detractors say their claims are specious and further exemplify NIMBYism. (Ironically, streetcar systems in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were a boon to wealthier, predominantly white neighborhoods—e.g., Inman Park.) And so forth.  

The debate aside, one cannot dispute the fact that streetcars provide a convenient, reliable, and eco-friendly mode of transportation. (Except when they’re caught in downtown traffic or breaking down.) So, what then can MARTA do to appease BeltLine streetcar detractors and Atlanta residents who support the alternative mode of transportation? I propose a simple solution: exchange the existing streetcars for more aesthetically pleasing ones.

The current Atlanta Streetcar design, in my opinion, is hideous:

The Atlanta Streetcar's initial Downtown Loop spans 2.7 miles and passes numerous attractions. Shutterstock

Now compare Atlanta’s streetcar with the St. Charles and Canal trolleys in New Orleans:

The antithesis of Atlanta's sleek modern streetcars in New Orleans. Shutterstock

The Crescent City streetcars’ iconic designs are a testament to the rich history and culture of the city. More than just a mode of transportation, they symbolize New Orleans and its unique character. Moreover, their ridership statistics are astonishing. On weekdays, the St. Charles Streetcar attracts nearly 11,000 riders, while on weekends it draws more than 13,000. Similarly, the Canal Streetcars combined have about 10,000 boardings on both weekdays and weekends.

This stands in stark contrast to Atlanta’s ridership statistics. At least one study showed a measly 500 Atlanta Streetcar boardings per weekday in the third quarter of 2022. Yikes.

But Atlanta's streetcars were once the epitome of cool. These vintage trolleys harkened back to a time when public transportation in Atlanta was not just a means to an end, but an experience in and of itself.

Unfortunately, the streetcar system in Atlanta fell out of public favor in the mid-20th century as automobiles became more prevalent. For this author, I am nostalgic for a time when Atlanta’s streetcars were, for lack of a better term, cool as hell.

With respect to the feasibility of my proposal, it appears—at least facially—achievable.

In 2011, records show Atlanta spent $17.2 million on four Siemens S70 streetcar units. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the resale value of each streetcar has depreciated between 20 and 45 percent, Atlanta could sell each trolley for somewhere between $3.4 and $2.3 million per unit (possibly to either Charlotte, Houston, and/or Norfolk, Virginia, all of whom utilize the S70 model for their streetcar lines).

The St. Charles Streetcar trolleys in New Orleans are Perley Thomas-built 800-900 series streetcars that were mostly purchased between 1921 and 1924 and still carry passengers today. Therefore, they are priceless. However, records show the New Orleans Rapid Transit Authority purchased several Perley Thomas 900-series replicas in the late 1990s and early 2000 for their Canal Street Streetcar lines, costing roughly $900,000 per unit. Pretermitting inflation and the costs associated with reengineering and customization, it appears at least plausible that MARTA could exchange trolleys.

I seriously doubt even the most fervent NIMBYs would object to such a trade.


As a final thought, I wholeheartedly believe that public transportation can be more than just a functional means of moving people around. A well-designed transit system should not only serve its practical purpose—it should also be fun! Think about it: Have you ever really enjoyed using public transportation? I certainly have, while hopping on Chicago's "L" train, riding the St. Charles line through the Garden District, and even gazing out over the Grady Curve on MARTA’s Green Line.

In conclusion: Come on, MARTA, let’s go throwback-style with Atlanta’s streetcars. It’d be a whole lot cooler if you did.

Jack Daniel Summer is an Ole Miss alumnus and Atlanta area attorney who practices primarily in the field of transportation litigation. 


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