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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Reed: Make Beltline a reality in 10 years


Since it broke ground, the Beltline has been envisioned as a 25-year project.

For the 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit to succeed, the thinking goes, the $2.8 billion project needs time for developers to build  dwellings, new residents and businesses to move in, and the complex financing mechanism upon which the Beltline heavily relies to work its magic.

There will be trails and parks popping up around the loop before then, of course. (Some already are.) But you're gonna have to wait a little longer if you want to ride your bike or take a trip in a light-rail car around Atlanta's urban core.

Mayor-elect Kasim Reed, however, says 25 years is too long a wait — especially for a project that supporters say could change the face of the city.

At a groundbreaking ceremony on Saturday for the Beltline's multi-use trail in southwest Atlanta, the city's next mayor made a symbolic appearance, voiced his commitment to the project and reiterated something he said on the campaign trail: He'd like to see the Beltline become a reality in the next decade. And Reed says he's gonna push for that to happen.

During the campaign, Reed said the project's timeline was too long to grip the public's interest. From a July CL article about the Beltline's progress and challenges:

Reed, who in 2008 co-sponsored legislation that allowed voters to restore funding to the project, says he thinks the Beltline's 25-year timeline — a source of frustration for many residents — could be shortened. He says the city should consider partnering with private entities for the Beltline's transit component and ratcheting up the tenacity when it comes to pursuing federal funding.

"I think that we have to get the stakeholders around the table and figure out how we move the Beltline faster," Reed says. "I believe the vision will take hold in a more muscular way if it's an eight- to 12-year vision [rather than] a 20- to 25-year vision. I think that is very tough for people to hold on to."

He has a point: Show some people sketches of the Beltline, tell them how the project could connect more than 45 neighborhoods with multi-use trails, parks and light-rail, and their eyes light up. Then tell them its earliest completion date is 2032 and they slump their shoulders, kick the ground and start looking for Chicago apartments on Craigs List. Impatient whippersnappers.

To be sure, there would be considerable obstacles should Beltline honchos want to pick up the project's pace. Permit applications, neighborhood sit-downs and planning studies take considerable time, something Beltline officials know all too well. Just this weekend Atlanta Beltline Inc. President and CEO Brian Leary, speaking about how the project is faring in the economic downturn, told the AJC's Ariel Hart that "the Beltline from Day 1 is a 25-year project."

(We're told that Leary on Saturday smiled after Reed's proposal, jokingly said he'd hold the mayor-elect to his idea and quipped that he'd now have to rewrite his speeches. A Beltline spokesman says project officials are proud of the progress they've made thus far, look forward to working with Reed, and are open to any ideas from the new mayor.)

The Beltline's main funding source is a tax allocation district, or TAD. It relies on new development near the project to help pay for land acquisition, infrastructure fixes and greenspace creation. To have sufficient transit ridership (and better compete for federal funding), it helps to have people living along the light-rail streetcar line. The city already has a glut of empty residential units outside the TAD's boundaries, so enticing developers to build anew — and secure financing — would be tricky.

"There's obviously a lot of work and detail to put in place," Reed spokesman Reese McCranie told CL on Saturday about Reed's Beltline idea. First on Reed's agenda, McCranie stressed, are fixing the city's finances and improving public safety. Later this week, the mayor-elect will announce a team tasked with examining the city's bloated pension system. For more details about Reed's transition to City Hall, take a look at my colleague Scott Henry's cover story about the mayor-elect.

Most important when it comes to the Beltline, McCranie said, is to continue discussions to secure all the abandoned railroad tracks and rights-of-way that form the leaf-shaped project's "spine." Nearly half of those tracks have been secured. Other ways to speed up the process could include pushing for more federal funding or considering deals similar to what Reed mentioned in the CL article above.

But there are other options — some of which have already been discussed — that could also apply here.

An infusion of cash couldn't hurt the Beltline. If state lawmakers ever realize that metro Atlanta sorely needs transportation fixes — and say, pass funding legislation that allows the region to pay for those improvements — some of that money could ostensibly be dedicated to the project. Reed, who has close ties with General Assembly members, could play a key role in finally getting the legislation out of the Gold Dome when the session starts in January.

And maybe some possible partnerships with other people-moving projects might help. During a Beltline mayoral forum prior the election, moderator Cathy Woolard — who as Atlanta City Council president was one of the project's biggest cheerleaders — said she'd never understood why city officials didn't marry the Beltline's northeast segment with the proposed Peachtree Streetcar's east-west route along Auburn Avenue. The interest and density was there, she said, and city officials could levy a parking tax to help pay for construction costs.

If successful, Woolard said, the transit line could help generate momentum along the rest of the Beltline. The idea received applause from the transit-savvy crowd. One obstacle: the aforementioned parking tax would most likely require action on the state level and face political opposition.

Of course, these are all big "ifs." But it's worth noting that Reed's proposal wasn't just a campaign line to differentiate himself from his opponents.

(Courtesy Atlanta Beltline Inc.)

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