In Atlanta, the Christmas season recalls the birth of Jesus and another momentous occasion that practically nobody celebrates: the Atlanta Streetcar’s maiden voyage around downtown.

Hard to believe, but it’s been seven years as of December 30 since cannons thundered and the ribbon was cut for the streetcar’s 2.7-mile, 12-stop downtown loop, with then-Mayor Kasim Reed declaring that the sleek, deep-blue trolleys should be featured in a James Bond flick filming around town at the time.

With the better part of a decade having sailed by like a streetcar in a dedicated lane, the downtown system is pulling in just 4,000 riders per week—or about 570 people per day.

That’s one highlight (lowlight?) of a Fox 5 news report this week that ponders the streetcar’s future—a timely matter, in that infrastructure has been a topic de jour for much of 2021. (Another highlight comes when a young downtown dweller is quoted as saying the streetcar “looks interesting… I just don’t know how [to ride].”)

Atlanta’s streetcar system, at last check, has been absent from talks of the federal Build Back Better bill’s agenda. The word “streetcar” doesn’t appear once in the 2022 bond and TSPLOST 2.0 package that will be put to Atlanta voters in May, which logic says could enhance the chances of those measures actually passing. And besides, the streetcar already has a tax-based revenue stream.  

Following three years of delay-riddled construction, the loop opened in December 2014 and hasn't expanded since. Photos via Shutterstock

After the streetcar system debuted some 18 months behind schedule and nearly $30 million over its initial budget of $69 million, MARTA swooped in and took over operations in 2018.

Fox 5 interviewed MARTA’s superintendent for rail, Lawrence Graham, who acknowledged that all these years later, the streetcar remains “a tourist route,” especially for visitors making their way between the Martin Luther King Historic District and attractions around Centennial Olympic Park. Big-ticket events, such as the SEC Championship game at The Benz earlier this month, still bring in droves of riders, even locals, per the report.

Graham also said the streetcar system could benefit from a marketing boost. Especially one targeted at the thousands of Georgia State University students around downtown. Hundreds of more rentals aimed at GSU attendees are rising across downtown now, with one 32-story, 835-bed project set to peer down on a streetcar stop.  

Supporters have long called the streetcar loop the nascent, required first step in what could be a comprehensive system one of these years; detractors argue it’s a perennial waste of money that should be shut down.  

That only 4,000 people are riding weekly could be fodder for the latter argument. For context, albeit apples-and-oranges, MARTA’s heavy rail transit system logged about 285,000 passengers per week in fiscal 2021, which was drastically short of forecasted ridership due to the COVID-19 pandemic, per the transit agency.

The prior year had seen nearly three times as many MARTA rail passengers per week.  

Riding the streetcar costs $1, and Graham said the elimination of free rides has eradicated the problem of downtown’s homeless population boarding the streetcars. Meanwhile, funding culled from the More MARTA sales tax approved by voters in 2016 is expected to pay for a planned $225-million streetcar expansion.

The hope among MARTA officials and transit advocates is that expanding the downtown streetcar loop to the eastside—destination: Ponce City Market, via the BeltLine—will finally transform it from a tourist-supported novelty to a useful, local transportation option.

To get there, the streetcar route would run from its current limits at Jackson Street along Edgewood Avenue, up to the BeltLine at Irwin Street, then north along the Eastside Trail to the Old Fourth Ward jobs hub and retail destination.  

Vocal transit advocates with BeltLine Rail Now believe the streetcar route to Ponce City Market can be built within three years, per their consultations with experts, instead of the 2027 timeline for opening the extension that MARTA has projected.

Per Fox 5's report, that eastward expansion is now expected to be "well under construction" in five years.

Planners explore the future of Atlanta's streetcar (Fox 5) 

Recent downtown news, discussion (Urbanize Atlanta)