If there's one thing we've learned about the Beltline, the 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit proposed to circle Atlanta, it's that surprises are to be expected. And some interesting developments are afoot with the $2.8-billion project.
If you recall, Atlanta Beltline Inc. the nonprofit agency in charge of planning and implementing the project finalized its purchase of a 66-acre piece of property in October owned by Gwinnett County developer Wayne Mason and his son Keith, an Atlanta attorney. The Mason property included land and transit right-of-way. The $66 million purchase riled city watchdogs not only for the ultimate payout to the Masons more than double what father and son originally paid for the land in 2004 but also the deal ABI cut with a private partner group it needed to buy out if it wanted to use tax-exempt bonds to finalize the purchase before a Halloween deadline. That's background, and for all intents and purposes, irrelevant for the moment.
Beltline leaders hoped to complete planning the area, implement transit, and sell off excess land to developers. They would then re-invest the windfall from those sales back into the overall project. But before it could do anything with the property, it first had to abandon the transit right-of-way. That humdrum process is conducted by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and largely involves just some time for public comment and a shuffling of papers. It was supposed to be a walk in the park.
Looks like that's not turning out to be the case. An eleventh-hour move by the state Department of Transportation and AMTRAK has potentially thrown a wrench in the Beltline. And why those two odd entities decided to hold hands and insert themselves into the conversation this late in the party is making folks scratch their heads.
Late last year, the city asked Norfolk-Southern, the rail and shipping company who had still had control of the rail line, to formally abandon the property. The process was supposed to be complete on Jan. 22. But according to a source with close knowledge of the abandonment process and a helluva letter Mayor Shirley Franklin wrote to U.S. Congressman John Lewis seeking his assistance, GDOT filed an out-of-the-blue motion with the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to halt the abandonment process. According to the mayor's letter, GDOT "enlisted the help of AMTRAK, which on January 21st took the brazen action of using its federal status to initiate condemnation proceedings on the corridor."
In other words, GDOT and AMTRAK have put the brakes on a vital piece of the Beltline and for the time being, put the project's future in limbo.
"I am dismayed and alarmed by these actions, which not only jeopardize BeltLine transit, but also our ability to compete for federal funds," Franklin wrote.
Some gems from the mayor's letter to Lewis:
The city, ABI, and the Atlanta Development Authority ABI's parent entity are fighting the motions on several grounds. They say AMTRAK has other options available to it that are more in line with its future plans for intercity transit, that GDOT and AMTRAK lack funding to support their actions, and this move endangers millions of dollars and countless hours already invested in the Beltline. Franklin's letter is a gem, so I've decided to post it here for your reading pleasure. Here's the Beltline's legal reply to GDOT's move. In so many words: Deny GDOT's motion.
So why is AMTRAK getting involved? According to a filing by the federal transit agency's lawyers sent to the Surface Transportation Board:
the BeltLine Segment that NS seeks to abandon is a critical link in the rail route that would be used by Amtrak trains (including Amtrak's New York-Atlanta-New Orleans Crescent) and future high speed rail passenger trains to access the proposed Multimodal Passenger Terminal in Atlanta. There are no viable alternate routes. The August 21 letter from the Atlanta Regional Commission included in the NS Notice (pp. 36-37) correctly states that, if the BeltLine Segment were abandoned, passenger train service into downtown Atlanta would have to operate via an alternate route (the "Trunk Line Route") over "the combined Norfolk Southern/CSX trunk line on the west side of the city ... an active rail corridor that is already heavily utilized by freight traffic."
Ironically, abandonment of the Belt Line Segment would thwart the development of intercity corridor and high speed rail service through Atlanta at the very moment when Congress has decided that expanding such services is a national priority.
Oh yeah, sure, blame Obama! (kidding, AMTRAK!)
Here are some questions: Why would GDOT, which as a member of the Transit Planning Board, signed off on said agency's regional transportation vision called Concept3, which included the Beltline, only now speak up? UPDATE: I've been informed that GDOT did not approve of Concept3. The Concept3 plan, if you recall, included commuter rail, but it was the Atlanta-Griffin line and Brain Train which don't run near Piedmont Park, where the Beltline property is located. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't the commuter rail in the plan originate from the long-in-the-works downtown train terminal proposed for "The Gulch" near Philips Arena?) And why does AMTRAK, which already operates heavy-rail trains that run out of the Brookwood station, have any interest in service on tracks that would pass residential properties and possibly enrage nearby homeowners?
What makes this even more interesting is the fact that GDOT owns a vital piece of Beltline transit right-of-way in the project's Southwest quadrant. The state agency and the city have reportedly been in talks for two years about a land swap. Is GDOT trying to gain some leverage in a future discussion about the land? Or about another piece of city property?
Some insiders are questioning the dates listed on the legal filings I linked to above. We'll get into those issues later. I made a call to AMTRAK about their condemnation but was sent to voicemail. The GDOT spokesman more familiar with the abandonment process would be able to comment in the morning.
But as they say, "sunlight is the best disinfectant." Here are some of the details. Please chime in if you have any thoughts. We'll report on it more tomorrow.
(Photo by Joeff Davis)
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