Atlanta’s Beltline project is one of the most exciting urban development programs in the country. The concept, originally proposed by a graduate student at Georgia State University Georgia Institute of Technology, is a 22-mile circle of light rail lines, parks, and affordable housing surrounding the inner city along the route of a mostly retired former freight railroad. It has excited the imaginations of the city’s citizens and garnered the support of Mayor Shirley Franklin. But news today from Amtrak and the Georgia Department of Transportation threatens to derail the program.
The project would be valuable for the transit-lacking capital of the New South, which has been growing at quite a clip recently (it grew from 394,000 people in 1990 to 519,000 in 2007), but whose citizens only have two major mass transit lines to choose from: MARTA‘s North-South and East-West Metro lines. MARTA does its job well, and attracts high ridership, but doesn’t allow for inner city connectivity, important for what’s slowly becoming one of the nation’s denser cities. On the other hand, the Beltline, along with the proposed Peachtree Streetcar, would improve transit for the inhabitants of the city’s Downtown, Midtown, and Near East and West Sides.
But the program has faced significant obstacles in the past, notably involving how it is going to get the $2.8 billion it needs to sponsor construction. A tax allocation district was proposed in 2005 which would have frozen property taxes in areas surrounding the line and allowed any standard increases in taxation (which would typically go into the city’s general funds) to go to paying for the Beltline project. But the Georgia Supreme Court declared such a funding strategy unconstitutional, forcing Georgia’s voters to pass a referendum basically allowing Atlanta to push through with the deal.
Now Creative Loafing Atlanta reports that Amtrak and the Georgia DOT are asking the federal government to prevent the Beltline project from taking control of the northeast section of the line because they argue that the track is necessary for the implementation of the Southeast High-Speed Rail project, Atlanta’s proposed commuter rail system, and the downtown Atlanta intermodal transportation center. Amtrak says no other route would be feasible for the implementation of those three important projects, and argues that the use of the corridor by the Beltline would make such projects impossible. But why did it take so long for Amtrak and the DOT to make their opinions known? The Beltline proposal has been around for years, and only now do we hear about a potential problem?
It would be difficult to imagine the Beltline without its northeast section, which runs through some of the city’s more prosperous neighborhoods and which likely would have seen some of the most transit-oriented development of the whole program. The section also would provide a direct connection to the city’s famed Piedmont Park, a fantastic resource that currently is cut off from rapid transit. So this fight is likely to continue on for a while, because it’s clear that neither the Beltline Partnership nor Amtrak want to give up on the rights to the corridor.
Though this is Atlanta’s problem, it raises questions about how cities around the country will handle multiple transit operators wanting to use the same right-of-way as the push for transit and rail service increases. Should intercity rail providers always get priority over local transit operators, or vice-verse? Is there any way the two could share the same right-of-way? In this case, would such a shared corridor undermine the pedestrian-friendly vision of the Beltline, or could the inclusion of intercity trains be implemented skillfully without detracting from the overall program?
For now, it’s unclear how this problem will be addressed. But a compromise, with both transit and intercity rail components included and a strong effort to somehow conserve the affiliated park and affordable housing developments, seems to make the most sense.
Images above: Atlanta Beltline Route Map and Northeast Quadrant, from beltline.org