Friday, March 20, 2009

GDOT ends role in Beltline dispute

Posted By on Fri, Mar 20, 2009 at 3:41 AM

The dispute that potentially derailed Atlanta's smart-growth future seems to be officially coming to an end.

The Georgia Department of Transportation today ended its role in the dispute over railroad tracks in northeast Atlanta considered vital to the Beltline, the 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit proposed to one day circle the city.

During its monthly meeting, the department's board unanimously voted to remove its objection over the Beltline's plans for the "Decatur Belt," a 4.3-mile rail segment that stretches from Ansley Park to DeKalb Avenue.

In late January, GDOT and Amtrak said they wanted to preserve the tracks — which the city purchased in late 2007 for the Beltline project — for a future intercity or high-speed rail line. Beltline supporters — afraid the $2.4 billion project would be jeopardized — and nearby neighborhood residents  — angered at the idea of a train chugging near their homes — vehemently opposed the idea. The transit agencies recently said they'd come to a consensus over the issue but needed more time to develop a "framework" and finalize how they'll work together in the future. That framework is now complete.

According to an analysis presented by board members by GDOT staff, passenger rail akin to what GDOT and Amtrak have in mind doesn't hinge on the Decatur Belt. An alternative route, operating along tracks west of Atlanta called the "Western Trunk," was instead recommended. GDOT staff also recommended the region consider constructing a train terminal along MARTA's Northeast line and tinker with the long-proposed downtown train terminal's design to accommodate a train operating on the Western Trunk. (Click here to download a PDF of the presentation, which includes excellent drawings and maps that add context to this very wonkish issue.)

Officials acknowledge, however, that there are some unanswered questions. Agency officials agreed they need to develop a freight rail plan and consider expanding freight routes around the city. Those could be costly projects — ones which bump alongside tracks owned by other shipping companies. There are also unanswered feasibility issues. Nonetheless, it appears the Beltline in northeast Atlanta is safe.

GDOT has also begun preliminary talks with Beltline officials about property needed for the project. GDOT owns right-of-way in Southwest Atlanta and south of DeKalb Avenue that Beltline officials must control to form the circular "spine" of the project.

The Atlanta City Council will  vote on the agencies' agreement at a special called meeting on Monday at 9 a.m. to. (I'll post the legislation in the morning.) An update to the U.S. Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that helps handle railroad segment disputes, is also due on Monday.

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