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Friday, February 20, 2009

Notes on secret Beltline meeting revealed

On Feb. 2, nearly 30 officials from various local, state and federal transit agencies, most of whom were locked in a bitter dispute over Beltline tracks near Piedmont Park, sat down with Congressman John Lewis' staff in his Atlanta office. Their purpose: Let's figure out what we're going to do with "The Decatur Belt," a segment of city-owned property near Piedmont Park that includes tracks vital to the Beltline project.

Officials have declined to comment on what was discussed at the meeting and how things have progressed. In a joint press release issued the day of the sitdown, agency officials said they would work toward a common solution and report progress in 30 days.

According to MARTA's notes of the meeting, obtained by CL in an Open Records Request, some of the transportation agencies sound — contrary to many of their comments after news of the dispute broke — seemingly unsure of their options. And they really didn't want to involve the media. What's more, the notes suggest a disappointing  — but not entirely surprising — reality: Local and state transportation agencies, at least prior to the Feb. 2 meeting, were not communicating with each other in a productive manner.

But with federal funding and millions of dollars in taxpayer and private investment on the line, the officials said they needed to figure this one out.

Download the meeting notes here. To see who attended the sitdown, download the meeting's sign-in sheet here. UPDATE: GDOT has responded with its notes from the meeting. They're much more detailed than MARTA's. In them, GDOT says it wants to explore what other parts of the city would be suitable for a train terminal into which commuter rail or inter-city rail could operate. That transcript is pasted after the summary.

If you're adverse to downloading the files, I've written a rather lengthy rundown of the meeting after the jump.

People who speak in the notes aren't identified by name, only the agency they represent.

GDOT's representative says the agency is supportive of the Beltline but has to preserve its future options. And he or she says, according to "past plans," if commuter rail doesn't run along the Decatur Belt, it won't be able to access a still-unbuilt downtown train terminal. The GDOT representative says the agency's boards have been working on a freight rail task force and that the Legislature may be supportive of "freight elements of this plan." He or she adds, "I think we're going to see a bill drop in the s [sic] state legislature to create a coordinated rail plan."

Amtrak's representative says that, for the first time in recent history, federal rail funding seems likely.

"At the end of the day, we don't trust each other and/or know each other," the city's representative said. "We've never had an integrated transportation system, but by and large, we have worked solo which is why we are now in an emotionally charged situation. However, this meeting is the first step in the right direction. It would be really helpful if everyone agreed to stop involving the media."

The pivotal issue — whether a commuter rail line could only run on the Decatur Belt to reach the terminal, or, if possible, even pull into another train station near Lenox — became a hot topic of discussion. That, and a desire to keep a vow of silence about the media.

GDOT_ Is (the MARTA) Lenox (station) an option for AMTRAK?

GDOT - Let's all agree that we will keep this conversation in this room. Let's come out of here with a common statement about what we are doing. Let's not work this out in the media.

Amtrak's representative says he or she doesn't know if the Lenox station is compatible for commuter-rail operations, but that any location would need characteristics similar to those at Jackson-Hartsfield International Airport — "access for pedestrians, local transit, highway access and parking." Well, that and "the ability to run trains without impairing ability [sic] freight operations." The airport was given as a possible location for the downtown train terminal after the dispute arose. He or she says it had always been "assumed" that commuter rail would have to run along the Decatur Belt.

GDOT and Atlanta Beltline Inc. officials then ask Amtrak how long it would take to review the possibility of the Lenox station. Amtrak's representative responds that one of the key players not at the meeting are the freight rail companies Norfolk Southern and CSX. "The freight railroads do not want to have a plan that they do not know about," the representative said.

GDOT's representative stresses the anticipated economic development a downtown Atlanta train terminal would bring to the area near Philips Arena and Five Points. A MARTA official raises the idea of having multiple train terminals located around the city. GDOT says they're not opposed to such an idea, but the conversation has always revolved around the downtown terminal.

From there, the officials decide to review the plans and keep communicating.

Here are GDOT's notes of the meeting:

Decatur Belt and the BeltLine Meeting Notes

February 2, 2009

Called to Order

The meeting was called to order by Commissioner Evans @ 10:10 a.m. A listing of those in attendance is listed in Exhibit A.

Purpose of the Meeting

Commissioner Evans began by stating to the group that GDOT is extremely supportive of the Belt Line. However, she noted that it had come to a point where GDOT needed to preserve its rights, in regards to commuter rail, intercity rail, and high-speed rail. She noted that the decision to file with the STB was a regional decision. She also commented on the fact that all the agencies have known about the issues, but have not made it a point to resolve the issues.

Comments by those at the Meeting

Dr. Beverly Scott

Dr. Scott noted that, like many projects, the BeltLine project has evolved over time; to the point that now there are conflicting plans at the table. She noted that freight issues are a big concern. Dr. Scott also indicated that, like many projects, the BeltLine will need to be phased and that we don’t want the BeltLine to cost us choices (in the future) and that one phase shouldn’t preclude the other phases from occurring.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner noted that GDOT wants to support the region, which means to keep options open for high speed rail. [Note: the high-speed rail documents we have at GDOT all support coming into Atlanta and serving the MMPT ].

Luz Borrero

Ms. Borrero spoke for the City, noting that the BeltLine is the City of Atlanta’s Number One transit project. She noted among a number of things that it has evolved progressively, over time, and that the project is recognized as a very doable project.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner noted the primary reason for getting everyone together was not necessarily to debate the issues but to figure out a plan of action – what do we want to do today.

Tad Leithead

Mr. Leithead remarked that we have an adopted regional plan. He noted that there is an unbelievable amount of pressure to build projects, even on the projects that can be built. He noted that ARC firmly supports commuter rail and heavy rail; however, everyone’s concerned about Amtrak’s threat of condemnation. He asked if there were a way for everyone to back off a step and work together (and not be under condemnation proceedings) . He emphasized that we get and work together sooner rather than later.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner noted that GDOT is willing to put together a request for a 60 day stay (with the Surface Transportation Board (STB). She noted GDOT will talk with Amtrak (as it has been). She reiterated that we/GDOT have to protect our interest (GDOT’s looking at this matter from a state perspective) and that we will need help in finding a resolution to this situation so that we can walk away (and not lose our needs).

Dr. Beverly Scott

Dr. Scott noted that Marta (and other folks) cannot stand down on this issue. She noted that as long as Amtrak is moving forward with the threat of condemnation, she cannot do nothing. She asked if there was a way Amtrak could stop it’s proceedings.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner stated that she wants to talk about options today and the need to reach a consensus today (on the MMPT and Decatur Belt issue). She agreed that this is the last place she wanted to be- that being in the middle of this matter. She noted we need to figure out a way to co-exist and if we cannot co-exist with the MMPT at 5-Points and on the Decatur Belt, we need to figure out where we can co-exist , suggesting possibly examining Lenox or the Airport as a new MMPT location.However, the Commissioner indicated that we are not going to give up and walk away today. She indicated she’s willing to work with the group to figure out if another way can be found.

Drew Galloway (Amtrak)

Mr. Galloway provided a historical perspective to the commuter rail and MMPT. He noted that in the 1990’s work had been completed that identified commuter rail, intercity rail and an MMPT in the Atlanta area. During this time, the federal government also came out with designated high-speed rail corridors, of which they identified three routes in Georgia [the Southeast High Speed Rail Corridor (one route goes through Atlanta and the other route goes through Jesup and Savannah) and the Gulf Coast Corridor]. He noted that North Carolina has probably spent over $100M in their efforts to implement the SEHSR corridor and their work is continuing, especially the segment between Richmond and Raleigh. Mr. Galloway noted that the studies to/through Atlanta have always pointed to the MMPT located downtown next to the Marta 5-Points Station. He further indicated that an MMPT needs to be located in a location where it can accommodate growth. Referring to the existing Amtrak Station at Brookwood, Mr. Galloway indicated that this existing facility cannot accommodate growth. For Atlanta, the currently designated location for an MMPT where growth can be accommodated is downtown Atlanta, adjacent to 5-Points, and to access the MMPT, the Decatur Belt will be needed.

Lisa Borders (City of Atlanta)

Ms. Borders spoke and indicated that, at the end of the day, we don’t trust each other. She indicated each agency does not want to give up their position. She compared each agency’s efforts to that of each of us working in silos - working independently and not with one another. She noted that today, we find ourselves in an emergency meeting . She further indicated there is a lot to do, a long way to go and today is just a baby step in that direction. She indicated she wished we could step back.Ms. Borders also noted that if we could all, collectively, agree to stop talking and taking this issue to the Media, we would be better off [she indicated that the City did not sponsor the recent event that was held in support of the BeltLine; she noted that the event was sponsored by the BeltLine Group, not the City]. Ms. Borders noted to the Commissioner and GDOT that if they have done anything to harm the Department, we apologize. She indicated the City’s goal is not to offend. She encouraged us all to take a step back. The City, she said, has a strong position on this matter, they have a project ready to go. The City sees the BeltLine as an economic engine and something the City can rally around.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner replied that our conversations need to start with other options. She also agreed that we do not need to fight this out in the Media. The Commissioner stressed the need to work this out amongst ourselves.

Terri Montague

Ms. Montague passed out a two-page sheet of information on the BeltLine. On one side was map of the BeltLine detailing the location of the BeltLine with listed projects identified in the first five years. On the other side were noted key elements of the BeltLine. Ms. Montague indicated the BeltLine encompasses more than transit, it includes a number of major investments. She explained such an effort allows the City to do as other “best-in-class” cities. She noted that the BeltLine was approved and endorsed by ARC in 2006 and they have a detailed work plan. The BeltLine will connect to Marta and the Peachtree Streetcar Concept. It was noted that, in the past 5 years, the BeltLine has secured two segments, one in the Northeast and the other in the Southwest. These segments are where they are actually implementing something. Ms. Montague noted that the BeltLine is not only a transit system, it will create a great public system, to accommodate a more livable community. It brings together Marta, Atlanta Development Authority (ADA) and the Atlanta BeltLine Inc. (ABI) . She noted they have identified either a modern street car or a light rail as the vehicle of choice – each representing a more “pedestrian friendly” vision of transit. Ms. Montague indicated the BeltLine Group has already spent $66M to purchase property. Their intentions are to build multi-use trails and affordable housing in the development of a community that is essentially an economic development project. She noted that a Tax Allocation District (TAD) has been established and she explained how the TAD would provide funding for the BeltLine. In conclusion, Ms. Montague noted that instead of the rail corridor being in the back of development, rail is in the forefront of the development.

Commissioner Evans

To clarify what she believed to be hearing, the Commissioner stated that, in the eyes of the BeltLine Group, co-existing in the Decatur Belt area is off the table.

Terri Montague

Ms. Montague reiterated that the BeltLine concept is underway. She noted that there is $300M worth of projects that are under contract today. Ms. Montague noted that the actions of GDOT (filing against the abandonment of the Decatur Belt) has affected the City, ABI, ADA and their “other” partners in the private sector.

Dr. Beverly Scott

Dr. Scott indicated that the BeltLine is also a major Marta project. She asked Mr. Derek Crider to speak on the BeltLine. Mr. Crider noted that Marta has a vision for the BeltLine and that they have contracted with ABI (Atlanta Beltline Inc.). The vision first looked at various alternatives. They recognized the MMPT to be the lynchpin of the vision. He noted that the MMPT is a paradigm for commuter rail. The key destination of commuter rail – the MMPT – is not the only destination. He noted that compared to other cities an MMPT is not to be the only terminal and downtown is not the only destination. Other destinations (for example, as one would arrive from Gainesville) will include Lenox and Brookhaven, and possibly Armour Yard.Mr. Crider noted that places like Lenox and Brookhaven are where transfers to Marta can occur. Therefore it may be possible to relocate the MMPT to one of these locations. He also noted that the current Amtrak Station on Peachtree is not near any Marta rail stations and that to connect to either from the other involves a long walk or a connecting bus ride.

Drew Galloway (Amtrak)

Mr. Galloway indicated he has personal experience with a number of MMPT stations that have been built in the U.S., and used the example of the station in Springfield, Massachusetts. Such is a location where work on a vision took place. He noted that Springfield station is where function and mobility co-exist; noting the key element to be mobility. To capture these criteria, he indicated all things needed to be brought into place – such as highway and railway access. He concluded by saying all these things – there needs to be a way to pull them together.A question was asked of Mr. Galloway – What does it take to be an accessible site? Mr. Galloway answered by indicating certain characteristics need to exist; and he noted Atlanta Hartsfield Airport as an example of a place where such characteristics exists - i.e. easy access to rail at the airport terminal. He noted that an MMPT needs to be expandable and supply access to local transit and pedestrian. Other characteristics included parking and auto rentals. He indicated the MMPT need not be disjointed.Mr. Galloway noted that the facility definitely needs to be one that would not adversely affect Norfolk Southern (and CSX). He noted the freight rail lines into and out of the proposed MMPT site at 5-Points are very busy lines and that a facility in this location needs to be constructed in such a way as to not affect the freight business. Specifically, Mr. Galloway noted that Amtrak does not locate stations geographically. Amtrak looks at passenger mobility on a national scale and then attempts to serve the needs. A question was asked of Mr. Galloway if he was familiar with the Lenox site. He was not, but he indicated he would be willing to take a look at the site.

Dr. Beverly Scott

Dr. Scott indicated that there would be a need to consider matters such as ticketing and parking, wherever an MMPT was to be located. She noted that parking would be a matter in and of itself and that none of these items pose a big engineering challenge.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner noted that Norfolk Southern would be a key player in the selection of an MMPT would not be in the 5-Points location. It was also noted that NS was not present but that in future meetings, they would be contacted and invited to join in the discussions.

Drew Galloway

Mr. Galloway noted that an MMPT needs to be one where tourists, who come into the city, can easily understand the transportation system and use it, whether it be to catch a cab, or to rent car, or transfer to another transit system (preferably one with understandable transfers). And, he noted it matters if you are trying to fit in a passenger system into a heavily used corridor, the two don’t mix well.Mr. Galloway was asked if a light rail system (Non-FRA Compliant Equipment) could co-exist with commuter rail (FRA Compliant Equipment). Mr. Galloway’s response was that to do so, would require temporal separation; i.e. by time of day and exclusion of certain equipment. He noted that there could be no concurrent operations [if the two are not separated by space or by barrier]. Also, Mr. Galloway noted that the width of the Decatur Belt varied from 40’ to 200’ (implying that in the areas of where 200’ of right-of-way exists, space/distance between the two could allow for simultaneous operations). Mr. Galloway also mentioned that one other way of temporal separation was vertical separation – as such was done in the West Palm Beach/Miami area.Terri MontagueMs. Montague indicated that non-FRA compliant equipment was purposefully selected by the BeltLine Group. The choice is now between a light rail vehicle or a modern streetcar.

Emory McClinton (DOT Board Member)

Mr. McClinton stated that the selection of an alternate site for the MMPT needs to be carefully considered, and conducted with a great deal of thought. He noted that billions of dollars in economical development at the current site of the MMPT in downtown Atlanta are at risk. He noted that past studies have pointed developers to where development of the infrastructure is occurring. He mentioned the new hotel , The “W” that has recently been constructed in the 5-Points area and noted that they located there in anticipation of other development to occur. Mr. McClinton also mentioned that history has played a part in the decision to locate the MMPT in downtown Atlanta – all railroads once led to a Union Station near where the MMPT is being proposed. He noted that if we were to move the MMPT out of the downtown area, there would be opposition to such a move. He indicated that we need to think how we can co-exist, not how we can oppose each other.

Richard Slattery (Amtrak)Mr. Slattery suggested that a DMU vehicle be considered. He noted that such is the case in Portland Oregon and in other locations. Mr. Slattery also indicated Amtrak is not here to tell everyone that you have to have an Amtrak Station in downtown Atlanta. The concern is the usability of the Decatur Belt. If it is not usable, there will be no access by Amtrak. He noted that it is clear that the railroads will not allow Amtrak to come down the busy west side (Howell Junction to the MMPT).

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner noted to the group that the Decatur Belt is the only option. She indicated that although there are two choices, the Decatur Belt or the West Side (Howell Junction to the MMPT), and the railroads have already indicated to us the west side is not an option.

Dr. Beverly Scott

Dr. Scott reiterated that Atlanta has major issues and that we have to get real about freight. She noted that there is a real problem with CSX and NS on the western side. She indicated that she is not suggesting that we get rid of the MMPT. She indicated she is not aware of any real origin/destination study that has been done to clearly indicate where people want to go. Dr. Scott noted that Lenox makes sense in that it is a destination.Dr. Scott mentioned Concept 6 (MMPT Concept 6) and noted that it was derived in 2002 and that today it’s perceived as an old script.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner reiterated to the group that the current MMPT was to accommodate high speed rail, regional bus, Greyhound buses, intercity, and commuter rail – all modes. She indicated a lot of discussion today has focused on the MMPT. She noted that there is one MMPT and not multiple MMPTs. The Commissioner indicated that we don’t have enough money for one MMPT, much less multiple MMPTs.It was noted that other larger cities don’t have just one MMPT. The example of Washington, D.C. was mentioned. Chicago was also mentioned as a location where an MMPT was near the Airport.

Lisa Borders

Ms. Borders noted that the most recent work for identifying an MMPT in the Atlanta area was seven years ago. She indicated that maybe Atlanta is one of those cities that can have more than one MMPT.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner indicated that if there is a need to consider multiple MMPTs, then multiple MMPTs will be considered. She then noted that we still need to consider how high-speed rail would access the MMPT and the Airport.

Drew Galloway

Mr. Galloway remarked on why the system works in Washington, D.C. He indicated that when you arrive in Washington, D.C., you are usually within one transfer of being where you need to be. He noted there are very few barriers. The D.C. transit system allows you to carry on with business locally in a very convenient way.

Chris Tomlinson

Mr. Tomlinson addressed the group by indicating that what he is hearing is that there are other options to explore. He noted that if we were to assume the BeltLine uses non-compliant vehicles, it would be helpful to know when the City and the BeltLine are going to move forward, with their plans, and in doing so, what other things become not possible in the corridor. Mr. Tomlinson also indicated that once the abandonment filing was filed with the STB, a time limit was established. Therefore, GDOT responded.

Dana Lemon (GDOT Board Member)

Ms. Lemon asked, what are the options to get high-speed rail to the MMPT if the Decatur Belt is not available? She also questioned whether multiple MMPTs are the solution. She noted that the dynamics may have changed since past plans, but we need to be real about future plans.

Terri Montague

Ms. Montague had a question for Amtrak. She noted in their filing, there was mention of there being sufficient right-of-way to build a dedicated passenger rail track on the west side and wanted to know if that was true. Mr. Slattery responded by saying that in the filing (which he assisted in working up) Amtrak indicated that there are portions of the west side where a dedicated track could be located, but not along the entire length.

Drew Galloway

Mr. Galloway pointed out that on the Decatur Belt, there will be no freight worries, and that the Decatur Belt will be for passenger trains only. Currently, he noted the Decatur Belt is the only way Amtrak would consider coming to and through Atlanta (with the MMPT at 5-Points). He noted that where there is 100’ of right-of-way, there would be enough room for compliant and non-compliant vehicles to co-exist; however, where there is only 40’ of right-of-way, there would not be enough room to co-exist.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner pointed out that, in light of the days discussions, co-existing within the Decatur Belt would be the last alternative. Therefore, she noted we need to look at all the other alternatives, such as expanding the idea of locating the MMPT in another area of Atlanta, possibly near Lenox or Armour Yard. Also, the Commissioner indicated we need to consider how high-speed rail would serve these other MMPT locations.The Commissioner indicated all of this will take time and she asked those present how they felt if the Department asked the STB for a 60 day stay. Ms. Borrero suggested that the time frame be 30 days. The Commissioner noted that 30 days was a short time to conduct what may be a lot of analysis.

Dr. Beverly Scott

Dr. Scott suggested that an “A-Team” be formed. The Commissioner agreed, but indicated that there needs to be two teams and the technical, or “A-Team” needs to consist of individuals who can make decisions or have been given the authority to make decisions.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner asked for assistance in writing up an Agreement “in principle” for the group to work together in an effort to solve the dilemma and come up with other options, with co-existing in the Decatur Belt area being the last option. The outline discussed included:

1) expand options and identify possible MMPT sites,

2) determine the suitability of suggested alternative locations for an MMPT,

3) determine the characteristics of an ideal station,

4) evaluation of each alterative location utilizing the characteristics as criteria,

5) determination of possibly a new MMPT site.

It was noted that Norfolk Southern needs to be contacted and be part of this effort.

Richard Slattery

Mr. Slattery noted that the Surface Transportation Board is expecting filings from the City and Norfolk Southern on or before February 9, 2009. Therefore, if we were to ask the STB for a 30-day postponement, the new due date would be March 11,2009.There was some discussion as to whether 30 days was enough time and if 45 days would be sufficient. The City and the BeltLine Group both indicated that 30 days should be the maximum time requested.

Commissioner Evans

There was some discussion as to how often the agencies should meet on this matter. The Commissioner noted that GDOT,ARC, GRTA and Marta are already meeting on a regular basis. The Commissioner suggested that the City and the BeltLine Group be invited to join this group.

Richard Slattery

Mr. Slattery reminded the group that there are two proceedings underway with the Surface Transportation Board. One of them is Amtrak’s notice of intent to file an application to acquire the rail passenger service easement by condemnation. Therefore, a 30-day grace period for this proceeding will also need to be requested, with action not taken by the STB until March 11, 2009. Mr. Slattery noted that he has never known the STB to agree to such an action.

Dr. Beverly Scott

Dr. Scott suggested that two teams be created, a Technical Work Team and a Political Work Team with the Technical Work Team focused on the technical aspects of searching and selecting possible alternative MMPT sites and the Political Work Team focused on the political aspects. The Commissioner indicated that Erik Steavens, Division Director of Intermodal Programs, would be the point of contact for the Technical Work Team.

Ms. Dana Lemon (GDOT Board Member)

Ms. Lemon indicated that, due to the recent media coverage, we should consider releasing a press release. The press release would indicate we are working together to resolve the issue and that we will be requesting a 30-day extension from the STB.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner indicated that Erika Davis would be working on the language of such a press release and that those wanting to get involved need to get with her and assist in putting such a press release together. The Commissioner noted that we should be able to send out a press release by 1:00, 1:30 at the latest, today. She also indicated the press release will stand on its own and indicate we are all calling for a cease-fire while we work things out.

Chick Krautler

Mr. Krautler noted that some of the items the Working Group needs to investigate/cover include:

What are Amtrak’s long range plans are (Amtrak needs to share their studies)

What’s in the new TIP (this matter may need to be represented)

If another alternative may or may not be feasible

Concept 3 - This concept has Amtrak utilizing the west side

To move freight off the west side

At the conclusion of this work, the issue needs to be taken back through the regional process

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner directed Erik Steavens to head up the Technical Team and to begin as soon as possible in forming the team and getting to work. She indicated that the Technical Team may need to meet 2-3 times a week and the Political Team may need to meet once a week; beginning Monday, February 12th (10:00 a.m.) in the time slot of the regular GDOT, ARC, GRTA and Marta weekly meetings.

Dr. Beverly Scott

Dr. Scott informed the group that Marta has secured Mr. David Gunn, former head of Amtrak, to assist Marta in this effort. She indicated she would make Mr. Gunn available to the group.

Commissioner Evans

The Commissioner noted that whatever decisions are made, the need for us to document the decisions so that years from now, someone not familiar with the history of this project can easily read up on the process.

Meeting Adjourned

The meeting adjourned @ 12:30 p.m.

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