Free Atlanta Streetcar rides? MARTA considers changes

3:53 p.m Friday, Feb. 9, 2018 Local
Reann Huber
The City of Atlanta has operated the streetcar since it debuted in December 2014. But MARTA will assume full control of the streetcar by July 1. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)

Riding the Atlanta Streetcar may be free again when MARTA takes over its operation later this year.

The transit agency also may reduce the streetcar’s operating hours but run it more frequently along its 2.7-mile route through downtown. And it may align transit schedules to make it easier for passengers to hop off a MARTA train and use the streetcar for the last legs of their journeys.

Those are some of the changes MARTA is considering as it prepares to assume operation of Atlanta’s streetcar in July. No decisions have been made. But MARTA officials believe they can improve the troubled streetcar’s operations and maybe save money in the process.

VIDEO: Previous Atlanta Streetcar coverage

A DeKalb County commissioner wants assurance as to who will subsidize the streetcar after MARTA merger.

“Transit is our core competency,” MARTA Chief Operating Officer Richard Krisak told the MARTA Board of Directors Thursday. “It’s kind of a foreign thing to the city. It’s not a knock on the city. It’s just not what they do.”

Improving the city-operated streetcar has been a persistent topic since it debuted in December 2014. Ridership has consistently fallen far short of initial projections – especially after the city began charging $1 to ride in 2016. And state and federal audits uncovered problems that lingered for months.

Last summer Atlanta fixed the remaining audit issues and even talked of expanding the $99 million streetcar system. But it has since agreed to let MARTA take over streetcar operations. The cost will be covered by the half-penny sales tax Atlanta voters approved in 2016.

MARTA is already thinking about how things might change when it assumes control July 1. Among other things, MARTA may make the streetcar free again, or at least integrate the streetcar fare system into its own. Currently, passengers must pay separate fares to use the two systems.

MARTA may reduce the streetcar’s operating hours but increasing its frequency from every 15 minutes to every 6-7 minutes. Currently, the streetcar operates as early as 6 a.m. and as late as 1 a.m., depending on the day.

MARTA may better align train and streetcar schedules to ease transfers. Agency officials believe they can reduce expenses by – among other things – consolidating administrative functions and training MARTA employees to operate the streetcar.

Ultimately, it may not even be called the Atlanta Streetcar. Krisak told the board it “will be branded a MARTA service.”

MARTA is studying those issues, with decisions expected in coming months. An Atlanta spokesperson said the city and MARTA have discussed the ideas and are working together during the transition to improve service and efficiency.

“We are excited about the future of the streetcar under MARTA’s leadership, and look forward to integration into the expanding regional network,” the spokesperson said.

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