Friday, March 6, 2009

Beltline, GDOT, Amtrak reach agreement over tracks near Piedmont Park

Posted By on Fri, Mar 6, 2009 at 9:40 PM

click to enlarge Happy ending for the Beltline?
  • Happy ending for the Beltline?

Residents and transit wonks hoping for a Friday cease-fire over unused railroad tracks called the "Decatur Belt" got good news today.

Officials from the Beltline, Georgia Department of Transportation, Amtrak and other transportation agencies say they've reached an agreement regarding the hotly contested rail segment that stretches from Ansley Park to DeKalb Avenue.

"These parties have reached a consensus on joint actions to develop and implement a plan to accommodate commuter rail, intercity and high-speed rail service in the region that does not require the use of the Decatur Belt rail corridor," a joint statement says.

The agencies agree that a commuter, intercity or high-speed rail line could operate along modified tracks west of the city. Beltline supporters initially proposed such a concept, but Amtrak and GDOT rejected it, calling it difficult because those tracks are busy freight routes.

A technical committee recommends a long-awaited downtown train terminal proposed near Philips Arena which would accommodate the trains be redesigned, that Amtrak consider possible stations along MARTA's Northeast line, and that the local, state and regional transportation agencies conduct a study of freight traffic options in metro Atlanta.

In other words: It appears that, barring anything insanely out-of-the-blue, the mixed-use, light-rail Beltline vision proposed near Piedmont Park is safe.

Background and the full release from the agencies after the jump.

The sides had until this afternoon to notify the U.S. Surface Transportation Board which agency had dibs on the tracks. The agencies will notify the agency and request 15 more days to document the agreement and seek approval from their respective boards.

Beltline officials, who paid more than $66 million for the tracks late last year, said they planned to operate light-rail on the tracks, a mode of transportation that is more conducive to walkable environments and mixed-use development envisioned for the $2.8 billion project. Amtrak and GDOT officials said the rails were a vital route for a future commuter rail or intercity rail line, a mode of transportation that's predicted to receive more attention now that a transit-friendly administration occupies the White House. The rail segment was in the process of being abandoned by shipping company Norfolk-Southern before GDOT and Amtrak filed an eleventh-hour objection with the federal agency. Maps of the contested rail segment can be found here.

On Feb. 2, agency officials sat down in GDOT's headquarters to try and hammer out their differences. They decided to spend 30 days examining plans. They've been tight-lipped since then, but the notes from that meeting, obtained through two Open Records Requests, can be found here. Sources privy to the negotiations since those meetings have told CL the talks weren't always pretty. We'll possibly have more on that later. Until then, looks like we'll have some documents to review.

Joint Statement Regarding Abandonment of the Decatur Belt

After 30 days of review and analysis by officials from organizations including the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), the City of Atlanta, Atlanta Beltline, Inc. (ABI), Amtrak, MARTA, the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) and the Transit Implementation Board (TIB), these parties have reached a consensus on joint actions to develop and implement a plan to accommodate commuter rail, intercity and high-speed rail service in the region that does not require the use of the Decatur Belt rail corridor. They also agreed to work for another 15 days to document the consensus reached, finalize agreements and secure any necessary board approvals to withdraw the abandonment challenges before the U.S. Surface Transportation Board (STB). The issue of freight and passenger rail capacity in the Atlanta region was also discussed and participants agreed to further develop a framework that assures downtown passenger rail opportunities.

During the review period, two teams met regularly - an Executive Review Committee and a Technical Review Committee, composed of executives and staff from the City of Atlanta, ABI, GDOT, Amtrak, MARTA, ARC, the TIB and others. The Technical Review Committee presented its findings to the Executive Review Committee on March 3rd 2009. Based on that work, the Executive Committee believes that a Western Trunk line modified to increase passenger rail capacity is a viable alternative to the Decatur Belt.

The recommendations of the Technical Review Committee include: formal dismissal of objections to the Decatur Belt abandonment; conducting a statewide freight needs analysis; developing a more detailed analysis and relocation plan of potential Amtrak intermodal stations along the northeast MARTA line; and updating the design for the downtown Multi-Modal Passenger Terminal to include north-south rail passenger platforms to facilitate more efficient operations at the station. GDOT also plans to engage its transportation partners to develop a federally approved rail plan to determine freight line capacity, where freight is moving, potential detour routes of through freight traffic around Atlanta, updated passenger rail plans and provide a mechanism for securing federal funds that are currently available.

Today, the involved parties will jointly inform the STB of the progress they have made in their negotiations. They will also request a 15-day extension of the period during which the STB has agreed to hold all proceedings related to the Decatur Belt in abeyance in order to allow the parties time to formally document the consensus reached, finalize agreements and secure any necessary board approvals to withdraw challenges to the abandonment of the Decatur Belt.

(Photo by Joeff Davis)

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