By Tova Fruchtman

Mass transit in Atlanta will have come full circle if the Georgia Department of Transportation’s plans stay on track.

In fact, when Emory McClinton of the Georgia DOT spoke to the Buckhead Business Association on Feb. 22 he used a map of Atlanta’s transit system that was more than 40 years old as a visual aid.

He said, rebuilding this transit system will be the key to economic development in Atlanta, and the heart of the plan is a streetcar system on Peachtree.

“Peachtree Street should become our own Champs-Elysée,” McClinton said. “And it can.”

The streetcar can help, but McClinton said the impact on economic development stretches far beyond Atlanta’s city limits.

In fact, he said, the return of the Atlanta Streetcar is just a part of a larger transportation plan that includes expanded commuter rail throughout the metro-Atlanta area and high-speed rail from Atlanta to Macon, Savannah and Washington D.C.

Closer in to the city, McClinton said the hope is for the streetcar’s route to mirror the route that was derailed more than 40 years ago: serving Stone Mountain, Emory University, College Park, Hapeville, and Lockheed (once the Bell Bomber Plant).

And all of this, he said, starts with a streetcar on Peachtree.

“The Peachtree streetcar will serve as the spark to reignite the interior of the city,” he said.

And to the audience of Buckhead’s Business leaders he said the streetcars will definitely enhance business.

“How?” he asked rhetorically. “It provides an easy method to get here to shop.”

And commuters would be able to come into the city more easily — without their cars.

“Is that worth your time, your energy?” he asked business leaders. “We at the Department of Transportation think so.”

Gerald Ross, also of the Georgia Department of Transportation, spoke about the long-term effects of the master transportation plan: including the commuter rail, the streetcar and the high-speed rail. The plan is for the main hub of all of these to be where the Five Points Marta Station currently is.

The idea is to create a line that encourages development, and that means business leaders should be involved, Ross said. “It’s dependent upon the business community and what they want to do,” he said.

He said, if the plan is successful, the projections show that by 2030 as many as 10 million commuters will be off the roadway and on mass transit.

But McClinton said that reaching that master plan will take money.

“Buckhead should not be the only participant in the funding,” said McClinton. “We are all going to benefit from it.”

He said, right now, there is no state funding source for the project. So, he asked the Buckhead Business Association to encourage their legislators to pass House Bill 173 written by Robert Holmes, Roger Bruce and other Georgia State Representatives.

The bill allows for counties to join together to create a regional SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) — a tax designed to serve a specific purpose and to last until a specified goal is reached or amount of money is raised. In this case, the SPLOST would add a 1 percent sales tax, where half of a cent would go to the regional transportation projects and half a cent would go to local transportation projects, McClinton explained.

“We need your support to help get your legislator to pass a funding bill that would allow Atlanta and the metro-area to have and develop a funding source that would support regional transit, local transit and help develop business,” he said.

He said funding will still need to be a team effort between county’s and the state (and pointed out that the original streetcar was funded by the private company: Georgia Power) but if the 18 counties in the metro-Atlanta region join the SPLOST than in 6 years there will be around $6 billion for the project.

“That will allow for a lot of change in the congestion (problem),” he said.

And the change in traffic would be great, but McClinton said that means getting to work now. “We have to — for our own benefit — make sure we start a process that will allow us to maintain our own transportation,” he said.

After his speech someone at the meeting wondered, why streetcars had been proposed as the means for public transportation in Atlanta?

McClinton answered: “It’s a more convenient and amicable system than riding the bus.” He added that the bus is often associated with poverty, streetcars are more easily accessible to senior citizens and more streetcars can run on a better schedule than busses.

In the end McClinton told the BBA that the streetcar and the mass transit system plan associated with it will be nothing but good for business, as long as they can get the money to build it.

“It will be a tremendous economic benefit for Atlanta,” he said. “We just need to get the funding for it.”