MARTA has unveiled preliminary plans to extend the Atlanta Streetcar, seen here on Luckie Street in downtown, east to the Atlanta Beltline and Ponce City Market. (Dyana Bagby)

The Atlanta Streetcar extension from downtown to the Atlanta BeltLine and Ponce City Market is expected to start construction in 2024 and be completed by 2027, according to preliminary plans revealed this week by MARTA.

The “Streetcar East Extension” would be the streetcar’s first extension of its nearly 3-mile downtown loop. It would also be the first stretch of transit along the Atlanta Beltline, an original component of the massive project begun nearly 20 years ago and expected to be completed by 2030.

The streetcar extension is planned to run nearly a mile down Edgewood Avenue, up to Randolph Street, along Auburn Avenue to Irwin Street where it will connect with the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail. From Irwin Street the streetcar route would continue north to Ponce City Market. Five stop locations are planned.

Downtown vehicular congestion has continually impeded operation of the streetcar. MARTA and city officials plan next month to close a section of Irwin Street where it crosses with the Beltline to vehicular traffic for one week. The idea is to collect data on how traffic is impacted at the notoriously congested intersection where Irwin intersects with Sampson and Krog streets. Bicyclists, pedestrians and other Beltline users will be able to access Irwin Street.

Illustrations of two proposed Irwin Street closing:

The one-week study will also deliver data to support the streetcar having its own lane to avoid sitting in car traffic.

“A big part of improving operations for transit is to provide dedicated right of way,” said John Saxton with ATLDOT during a Sept. 13 virtual meeting about the project.

“We know that it’s also a political decision,” he said. “I would encourage you to reach out and let your elected representatives know that you think it’s it’s a worthwhile exercise and you support the opportunity to dedicate right of way for transit operations, both for this project and other MARTA projects.”

The blue line shows where the Atlanta Streetcar extension would go, connecting at the Atlanta BeltLine at Irwin Street and then ending at Ponce City Market. The planned stops are circled in green. The entire route is about 2 miles. (MARTA)

Atlanta City Councilmember Amir Farokhi, whose district includes the rapidly growing and gentrifying Old Fourth Ward, said at the Sept. 13 meeting that the eastward expansion of the streetcar is a “transformative” project.

“The question with transit is oftentimes a chicken and egg one,” he said. “Well, the chicken has laid the egg on the east side and so expand the streetcar out toward Ponce City Market holds a lot of promise from a ridership perspective.”

Design for the extension is just 30% complete. Cost for the project is estimated to be between $176 million to $215 million. Funding to pay for the project will come from the 2016 More MARTA referendum when voters approved a half-penny sales tax for transit. Costs for another More MARTA project, the Summerhill bus rapid transit line, have ballooned and stalled the project.

Greenspaces, trees, cycle tracks, pedestrian safety and construction time were also discussed at the virtual meeting attended by more than 200 people.

An illustration of how the streetcar expansion project would address tree protection.

Ridership numbers were also questioned. MARTA has pre-pandemic numbers but is still compiling post-pandemic numbers.

Josh Rowan, MARTA’s deputy general manager and former ATLDOT commissioner, said millions of people are continuing to move to Atlanta and “transit will continue to play a vital and increasingly vital role in how we move people throughout our city.”

“If we look at potentially the region being seven, eight million people, our systems are not going to be effective if we continue to rely on single-use vehicles,” Rowan said.

Video of the Sept. 13 virtual streetcar expansion meeting with full presentation can be viewed here.

A rendering of the Highland Avenue station and streetcar tracks along the BeltLine Eastside Trail.

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.