When it comes to the future of public transit in Atlanta, there's good news and there's bad.
The good news: After decades of bowing at the throne of road builders, the Georgia Department of Transportation says it's taking off the kneepads and getting serious about train service that would connect Atlanta to other cities in the Southeast.
The bad news: Thanks to an unexpected tiff between GDOT and city of Atlanta officials, the Beltline – the 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit that would one day circle the city – might be in jeopardy. That's because the train service that GDOT is suddenly embracing would have to run on or near the proposed Beltline tracks.
Last week, CL first reported that GDOT – working in tandem with Amtrak – threw a wrench in Beltline officials' plans for light rail, trails and greenspace near Piedmont Park. Just as Norfolk Southern, the current owner of the tracks in question, was about to surrender them to the city, GDOT and Amtrak stepped in and halted the proceedings. The two agencies now say the tracks are vital to their own vision for commuter rail.
"Simply put, because of GDOT's boorish behavior and AMTRAK's willingness to play along, the future of the city of Atlanta is at stake," Mayor Shirley Franklin wrote in an urgent letter to U.S. Congressman John Lewis to seek his assistance.
GDOT's explanation: Those rusty rail lines must be preserved for a commuter rail line that has been planned since 1992. If Atlanta ever wants to see commuter rail inside city limits and a downtown terminal akin to Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, the trains must operate along the Decatur Belt that flanks Piedmont Park, the department claims.
Officials from Atlanta Beltline Inc. and the city say they were blindsided by the move. GDOT had been actively involved in numerous regional transportation plans, all of which included the Beltline. So why potentially derail the Beltline – and bring in Amtrak, which has the power to condemn the property – now? Why not step in earlier, before the city began securing funds for the Beltline and buying up land along its proposed route?
That's a question GDOT hasn't been able to answer. Weirdly, internal GDOT documents state that the department and the city have been communicating for quite some time – with no mention of a commuter rail line infringing on the wildly popular Beltline.
But with a transit-friendly administration now in the White House, the GDOT smells federal funding.
"We've heard clearly from the Obama administration that high-speed rail is going to be something that is on their plates," GDOT Commissioner Gena Evans says. "I'm ready to do something with commuter rail."
Evans also says her department, which supports the Beltline, hardly kept Atlanta officials in the dark about GDOT's own commuter rail aspirations.
"The city's known about it. It's not like someone didn't know this was an issue," Evans says, adding that the property's previous owner, Wayne Mason, had contacted GDOT about its commuter rail plans.
If heavy-rail trains don't run along the tracks, Evans claims, they won't run anywhere in Atlanta. Nor will it be feasible to build high-speed rail or a downtown transit terminal that's been planned for more than a decade. Plans for the terminal are sitting on a shelf collecting dust.
Last week, on the day the shit hit the fan, Evans told board members in a memo that the two projects could run side-by-side. But Beltline officials say GDOT's plans wouldn't mesh with their vision of parks, trails, mixed-use developments and pedestrian thoroughfares. A loud, lumbering commuter rail line would be an intrusion in that smart-growth utopia.
Nor are nearby residents keen about GDOT's proposed remedy to run both projects side-by-side. The most controversial aspect of that proposal would be a miles-long, 8-foot-tall barrier that would block residents' access to Piedmont Park.
"We do need high-speed rail and Georgia needs commuter rail," says Lee Biola, president of grassroots advocacy group Citizens for Progressive Transit. "But Atlanta needs the Beltline. We can have all three. We just can't have all three on these tracks."
Ryan Gravel, who conceived the project while working on his thesis at Georgia Tech, says there's an alternative to the state and Amtrak's plan, which as of now has no funding. In 2005, Gravel surveyed various rail segments that would comprise the Beltline's spine. He concluded that Amtrak's proposed commuter rail could instead run along active tracks on the west side of the city and operate out of the transit agency's current station in south Buckhead – or even a new hub near Ansley Park.
But Evans, who's seen Gravel's study, claims no other scenario will work. It's Decatur Belt or bust.
The impasse could work against Georgia – a state notorious for infighting among its transportation agencies – when it comes to the federal government's generosity with infrastructure funding. Terri Montague, who as CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc. oversees the project, says new U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood already has been made aware of the dispute.
"Anybody looking for money for Georgia from the federal level is probably going to have to wait until there's some sense of resolution here," Montague says. "Our credibility as a state has been called into question. The discord is not looked upon favorably by the federal agencies."
On Saturday, nearly 300 Beltline supporters rallied on the overgrown and rusty rails in question. Considering that some supporters in attendance also successfully thwarted GDOT's plan in the 1980s for a controversial interstate near Candler Park, it's fair to say the battle could get ugly.
As CL went to press, all transit agencies involved in the brouhaha were scheduled to meet on Feb. 4. Evans says the GDOT board also will convene this month to discuss the matter.
Time is of the essence, Beltline officials say. Requests for federal funding are due this month. If those deadlines are missed, the project that's been touted as the most progressive in Atlanta's recent history could face its most daunting challenge yet.
@ JF Williams "And now I have even more of a reason to totally ignore…
If only he'd continued to throw strikes the way he tweets.
Wow! Look what I missed...didn't miss anything I was at the beach. I burned gas…
At-large voting is a crock and a crime when it's conducted this way. Get rid…
If it is John Rocker writing the tweets they are pretty good.