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This is no loopy loop 

A transit plan that breaks all kinds of molds

Red tape and politics are largely to blame for why big transportation projects, the ones that would actually get people out of their cars and onto mass transit, are stuck in a bureaucratic bog.

It doesn't help that about a half-dozen good projects are competing for the same transit funds.

Ivy grows faster than mass transit moves around here. And we're not talking about the speed of MARTA trains, just the time it takes to get worthwhile, people-moving projects up and running.

Yet, the Beltline proposal, a plan to build a trolley, light rail, fancy bus, or some other kind of transit system on a 22-mile loop of rarely used train tracks that circle the city, is one of the few transit projects leaving the realm of the pipe dream.

Plenty of transit projects can move people from point A to point B. But it's the potential development associated with the Beltline that is its saving grace.

City Council President Cathy Woolard's staff has figured that 2,700 acres along the line are undeveloped and zoned industrial. Those dead zones of land are dollar signs for developers, who're now pushing the Beltine project with more gusto than just about any other group. Why?

Because intown Atlanta -- not the congested and homogenized suburbs -- is gradually, oh-so slowly coming to resemble something close to the place to live in the South. In fact, the population in the city of Atlanta has increased by more than 12,000 residents since 2000, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. During the 10 years between 1990 and 2000, the city's population grew by a measly 1,274 residents.

Woolard, the businesses and developers want the Beltline so much, they're becoming positively innovative in their funding proposals. The plan is to create a localized district that taxes itself, called a Tax Allocation District.

"It struck me that if we could figure out something that would help us build at least a phase of it without federal funds we could move more quickly. It'd probably knock a couple of years off of [the final completion date]," Woolard says.

Under the plan, bonds would be issued to pay for the majority of the Beltline's construction. Those bonds are paid off by taxes that the Beltine generates within a jurisdiction mapped out by city officials.

Chicago, San Diego and Portland, Ore., have used similar plans to finance light rail and redevelopment projects. San Diego officials claim their funding plan netted the city $2.4 billion in new investments downtown, which in turn generated a $48.6 million escalation of annual tax revenue.

The same scheme is envisioned for Woolard's loop. Her staff estimates that development along the Beltline could bring in 100,000 new residents. It would also pass through 48 intown neighborhoods, and have stops in 44 of them.

Because plans for the Beltline call for a greenway buffer, and bike trail to accompany it, the PATH Foundation is committed to paying for some of the landscaping and greenspace acquisition.

Woolard also says the project is eligible for federal redevelopment grants because of all the brownfields -- industrial wasteland -- along the loop. Also, since the Beltline may run through down-and-out neighborhoods, the project could get federal funds intended to spruce up inner-city blight.

Even in the snail's pace world of transportation planning, the Beltline has moved faster than just about every transportation project in regional history.

The gist of the idea for the Beltline came from a 1999 master thesis in architecture and city planning at Georgia Tech.

Ryan Gravel took his thesis to Woolard, who was then chairwoman of the city's Transportation Committee. Within three years, the Beltline proposal had made it onto the ARC's and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority's lists of transportation projects that may one day get built.

That may not sound like a big deal, but it takes some projects 10 years just to be considered for a half-million feasibility study.

The Beltline, along with a proposal long championed by U.S. Rep. John Lewis to expand MARTA, received $2.5 million for a feasibility study, which, lists possible routes and financial estimates. Feasibility studies are the first steps toward actual construction.

While the Beltline has made good progress, it hasn't moved fast enough.

"Accessing federal funds is incredibly frustrating anyway, but is probably the same way people feel about accessing city funds," Woolard says. "You have to get in line, you have to work the politics of it."

Plus, there hasn't been a better time to look to other sources of funding besides the government.

Ever since former Gov. Roy Barnes got booted from office, mass transit projects that don't involve buses have stalled out.

Plans to build the multi-modal station downtown are on hiatus because the state won't pony up matching funds, even though Cousin's Properties is in for $50 million the second the governor gives the project a nod.

At least $55 million in federal transportation funds for the multi-modal station and commuter rail are in limbo because the state won't allocate the necessary matching funds.

All of these setbacks are a result of war between the build-more-roads advocates who claim the high cost of rail rarely justify the expenditures, and the city planning wonks who envision a world where commuters don't own cars.

It's a debate that consumes most transit projects in the region, and will be an obstacle for the Beltline, no matter how it gets funded.

Intown development projects that are either under construction or have been approved for construction will add more than 2,500 residential homes to intown Atlanta, and that by 2007, there could be an additional 40,000 new vehicles on city streets, according to state transportation and development agencies.

A review of the ARC's transportation projects over the next 25 years shows that the few plans to improve mobility in the areas where big developments are planned are either too meager to have much impact, or aren't scheduled for completion any time soon.

michael.wall@creativeloafing.com

For Beltline information, check out www.cathyatlanta.com. For more on the region's transportation plans, and for upcoming meetings, click on www.grta.org, and www.atlantaregional.com.

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