Atlanta Beltline LRT Progress in Question

» Atlanta Beltline’s northeast section put into jeopardy by Amtrak and Georgia DOTAtlanta Beltline Map

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.Atlanta Beltline Northeast Map

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

6 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • As a native Atlantan (now in DC), I have to say that the Beltline has braved many battles. We don’t know yet what will happen with the project, but TOD is already starting to spring up along the line. It would be a shame for any of this project to fail.

    I would like to nitpick one little thing. Ryan Gravel (pronounced Gruh-vell), who came up with the concept, was a graduate student at the Georgia Institute of Technology (my alma mater), which along with GSU is also in Atlanta.

    Anyway, this is not a new problem. GDOT has been trying to hold up both the Northeast and Southwest portions of the line since the very beginning. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported on these issues before, but some explanation is necessary.

    All of this could be avoided if Amtrak was willing to do one of two things:

    1. Allow trains to back out of terminal stations.
    2. Reinstate the route of the “Southerner” and return the “Crescent” to it’s original routing.

    Because of the nature of Atlanta’s rail network, which was originally funneled into two stations, it is difficult to have any through trains. Many trains passing through Atlanta went through “The Terminal” which, as it’s name suggests, was a terminal station. Like all terminal stations along the Amtrak system, it was closed because Amtrak will not back trains while passengers are onboard.

    Backing at Atlanta Terminal (or the proposed Multimodal Terminal) would only be backing for a couple hundred yards, to get back onto the main or through a wye, but Amtrak refuses to do that. So for the same reason that the Atlanta Amtrak station is miles from downtown and blocks from the nearest subway station, Savannah and Jacksonville’s stations are out by railyards, completely inaccessible by transit–and not contributing to urban redevelopment.

    Incidentally, VIA Rail Canada backs it’s flagship train “The Canadian” as a regular part of its route out of Toronto. “The Ocean” also backs into Charny while en route from Halifax to Montreal. So it’s not impossible or dangerous. And the Pennsylvanian, from New York to Pittsburgh, runs backwards (from a passenger perspective) from New York Penn to Philadelphia, there is however a locomotive in front, while passengers ride backwards. This suggests that a switcher locomotive could pull trains out of terminal platforms at Atlanta. And there probably would be one because Georgia’s commuter rail network (if ever built) would include many lines.

    Back to the other concept. If the Cresent ran along it’s present routing from New York to Atlanta (via Washington and Charlotte), and then took it’s original routing to New Orleans (via Montgomery and Mobile), it could be served at the Multimodal Terminal by north-south platforms.

    To maintain service to Birmingham and Meridian, one could reinstate service between Atlanta and New Orleans on the route of the Southerner. I think it makes the most sense to extend this route north of Atlanta by going through Augusta, GA and Columbia SC, where it would join the “Silver Star” to continue on to Washington and New York. This alignment would allow it to use east-west through tracks at the Mutlimodal Terminal.

    Either one (or both) of these proposals would allow the Beltline to exist, and would improve Amtrak service (by putting it in Downtown Atlanta) by perhaps increase service to new cities (by reinstating the Southerner).

  • Thanks Matt for the clarification.

    I think your idea about reinstating the Southerner and restating the original route of the Crescent makes a lot of sense.

    But the issue of backing trains is an interesting one; in Europe, as well, many through trains enter terminals and then exit without discharging passengers. This is, however, easier on the Old Continent where most trains have locomotives at both ends, and where the principal change required is the driver getting from one end of the train to the other.

    And yes, let’s hope the Beltway happens… it’s a good idea.

  • Patrick M

    SC hates rail transportation. There will be no high-speed rail to Georgia that needs to go through SC. Give up on it and focus on the beltline.

  • Owen

    Agreed with Patrick M. HSR will take decades to happen. The beltline has significant momentum behind it RIGHT NOW. Not only that, but I think they shouldn’t even reserve space in the beltline for HSR or passenger rail, since the idea of high speed rail trains completely ruins the community-building character of the beltline in the first place.

    For the Crescent, keep stopping it where it stops right now. It’s just one train a day. If frequency increases, build a station at Lenox for a connection with Marta.

    HSR actually is planned to go to Macon, not Birmingham, so the north-south platforms at the MMTC will work just fine for that.

  • Do you think with the New High Speed Train Corridor proposed by Obama Administration that it will effect the Beltline?

    It would be a great addition and bring more visitors too the city. It would also help with commerce. It would also help put people back to work and help with the value in the falling housing market in ATL>

  • Scott Workman

    So much of one project will affect the other. SEHSR as well as Amtrak will both benefit from a city with better connectivity via the Beltline LR. As someone said, TOD along the route is already booming, sans the T part so far. The customers of those developments are there because they want connectivity, density and transit.

    They are also going to want connections out of Atlanta for business or pleasure and more connectivity is only going to help out with increasing the number of people willing to hop a train to and from Atlanta.

    From a ridership standpoint it only makes sense that these projects go hand in hand. More people on long distance transit, want to go somewhere that they can take transit in the vicinity as well.

    In looking at the Google Map of the NE side of Altanta, I see a lot of warehouse’s, malls, and very spread out development along the route. All of these places are going to reap huge financial rewards if this project comes to pass, meaning that this will be where the city is built for the next 30 years. Even if it means some eminent domain issues here and there, the majority of the property owners in the area are going to do just fine through all of this, so perhaps allowing for widening of the corridor to accommodate freight, LR and passenger rail is the key.

    Also, regarding backing, in Tampa they back you up while you are onboard before arriving at the station, in order to back into the Tampa terminal. Not sure about why they do it there and not elsewhere.

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