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The little train that could 

Do cars equal mobility? Hah! How about a trolley loop around the city?

There's a columnist at a local newspaper-of-declining-circulation who likes to rant on about Atlanta's need for "mobility," by which he means well-heeled white guys careening at unrestrained speeds down I-75 in their SUVs.

Then we have a governor who wants to spend $2.4 billion to moonscape outlying burbs with the Northern Arc -- claiming the highway will increase "mobility" -- while ignoring the obvious truth that it will gush oodles of development that will only further gag roadways.

And, of course, we have a panoply of "grassroots" groups (odd how they smell like Astroturf) that do "studies" showing Georgians just luuuuuuuuv roads because we all want more "mobility." I'm shocked one survey or another hasn't found that we'd prefer more roads to good, sweaty sex, but I'm sure that oversight will be remedied soon. The latest poll, paid for by road builders, developers and bankers (aka The Unholy Trinity) found that 61 percent of us can't conceive of life or the survival of Western Civilization without the Northern Arc. What a surprise!

I looked up this sacred incantation -- "mobility" -- and found that it means the "ability to physically move about." There's nothing about cars or roads in Webster's definition. A pogo stick or a Segway scooter or a healthy pair of legs or a wheelchair or a bicycle or a train can all define "mobility." It just depends on how fast you want to get there from here.

Indeed, if autos were the standard, Atlanta at 8:15 a.m. and 5:15 p.m. is the very embodiment of "immobility." And no amount of road building will ever fix that because highways attract developers just like shit lures flies.

Well, I get depressed thinking about Atlanta's quixotic quest for "mobility." How about you?

Moreover, the depression is nagging and incessant -- because we live in the middle of damn little mobility. I muddle over this mobility thing every day as I creep about the city in my own SUV. I mean, I just wish MARTA went somewhere that people, me for a start, needed to go (the airport line being a notable exception). MARTA was ill-conceived, used 19th-century technology that gobbled up tons of money, is inflexible, and currently is the archetype of featherbedding.

Sigh. I get even more depressed.

Then one evening a couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with City Council President Cathy Woolard. She started effusing over some old railroad tracks that ring Atlanta. These tracks, many of them abandoned and now just kudzu corridors, could be transformed into something that would be true "mobility."

Woolard was excited. She was exhibiting that rarest of all traits among local pols -- vision. Her enthusiasm was infectious -- so much so that I started jumping up and down with her and in the process dribbled tuna on my Jerry Garcia tie.

So here's how we're all going to get mobile. It's such a damn good idea -- feasible, economical, sensible -- I'm sure politicians will do their damnedest to Deep Six it. But, who knows?

The story all starts three years ago when a Georgia Tech graduate student, Ryan Gravel, was looking at maps of Atlanta. He noticed a collection of rail lines ringing the inner city.

Along with other Tech students Mark Arnold and Sarah Edgens, Gravel fashioned a concept that could, like a laxative, unclog the immobility of Atlanta.

Gravel's idea became a graduate thesis. Then, the light bulb flashed over his head, and he thought that, gee, someone might take him seriously.

Woolard recalls that after a transportation measure had come before the city, she was dismally pondering the sad state of Atlanta's "mobility" while she sat in her office opening mail. "'We've got to do something,' I thought as I opened a letter," she says. "It was Ryan Gravel's proposal. I looked at it and said, 'Wow! This is great!'"

What Gravel dubbed the "beltline" forms an egg-shape circumference, stretching from the Lindbergh MARTA station on the north to Peoplestown south of Turner Field; Washington Park is on the west, and Inman Park on the east.

It strikes me that these old rail lines are at the heart of Atlanta's history. Many were built and strung together in a loop after the Civil War to provide the base of Atlanta's industrial and transportation economy. Proud pre-car neighborhoods grew up around the lines. Now, largely forgotten and ignored, the old tracks could be the key to the city's future as well.

The 22 miles of rail corridor, under Gravel's plan, would link 40 new stations as well as five MARTA hubs. The beltline would run through or adjoin many of Atlanta's historic neighborhoods. The existing corridors are generally wide -- sufficient to accommodate two tracks, plus paths for pedestrians and cyclists.

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