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The little Beltline that could... 

change everything about Atlanta

More than a century ago, four railroads built tracks to bypass downtown Atlanta's heavy train traffic. The Atlanta & Westpoint, Southern, Sea Board Air, and Louisville & Nashville lines combined to create a perimeter around what was then the city.

Most of those tracks fell into disuse. They were practically forgotten when Georgia Tech city planning student Ryan Gravel completed a master's thesis suggesting that the lines be converted into a 22-mile ring of parks, paths and trains.

That was 1999. Six years later, Gravel's thesis has gathered the momentum of a high-speed locomotive. If his idea becomes reality, it could transform Atlanta's intown living more profoundly than did the Olympics.

Gravel and Cathy Woolard, City Council president from 2002 to 2004, hawked the Beltline to neighborhood groups and business leaders. They convinced the Atlanta Regional Commission to reserve $300 million for the project over the next 25 years.

Now the Beltline has become the rage of city. Republicans and Democrats are praising it. Civic groups have endorsed it. Leaders are excited because it could spur inner-city development. And transit activists are practically ga-ga.

The project has the forceful backing of Mayor Shirley Franklin, who's appointed a Beltline Partnership to lead a campaign to shepherd its official approval, financing scheme and planning process.

Despite all that support, the Beltline faces long odds before anyone even buys an acre for it. Its $2 billion-plus price tag ain't chickenfeed, and the sheer complexity of the project creates the potential that should one part fail, the whole thing would derail.

The biggest test yet for Beltline advocates comes over the next couple of months, when City Council, the Atlanta School Board and the Fulton County Commission will be asked to approve a tax allocation district to fund the project (TADs use the increased property tax revenues resulting from rising property values in a defined area to facilitate infrastructure improvements in that area.) If all three government bodies don't approve the TAD by the end of the year, advocates warn, the project will lose its momentum and it will be far more difficult to approve a TAD next year.

"If the TAD fails, you'll have to take the Beltline off the table," says Ray Weeks, a former developer who now heads the Beltline Partnership. "There won't be a Beltline if there's no TAD."

Michael Wall

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