The Beltline is dead

But meet the new and improved Beltline

The Beltline proposal, a plan to build a trolley, light rail, fancy bus or some other kind of transit system on a 22-mile loop of rarely used train tracks circling the city, stands out as one of the few transportation projects that might actually improve quality of life in Atlanta. It also made the short list of transit projects that’ll get millions in funding over the next seven years. To do this, the Beltline had to beat out four MARTA line extensions and every commuter rail proposal except one.

But the entire project is in a precarious position. It’s loved by number-crunching transportation planners who see it reducing car trips by the several thousands, as well as by developers who are licking their lips over the intown development it could spur. Yet so far, only $100 million of the estimated $583 million project will come from guaranteed sources, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission. The ARC optimistically expects the remaining funds to come from local sources such as cities and counties.

Even more discouraging, three large sections — nearly a fifth — of the Beltline’s proposed path will be close to impossible to use for passenger travel. That’s because rail companies CSX and Norfolk Southern use and own the tracks, which carry up to 15 freight trains a day, according to officials with those companies. Other sections of the proposed Beltline route are owned by the state Department of Transportation, which doesn’t see eye to eye with the Beltline’s planners on how the project should end up.

Still, the project isn’t exactly dead. It simply will have to evolve, a lot, if it’s to survive.

On May 12, Mayor Shirley Franklin announced the formation of a steering committee to guide the Beltline through the quagmire of transportation planning’s bureaucracy to completion.

But the person who grew the Beltline concept from a Georgia Tech student’s thesis into a bona fide transit proposal, former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, has left the council for a brutal, and unpredictable, race for U.S. Congress.

If not for Woolard, the Beltline would have been stuck on the pages of a college dissertation. But to move forward, the Beltline can no longer depend on Woolard — and it doesn’t have to, according to some.

“Cathy Woolard’s presence is not going to make a difference,” says the ARC’s top planner, Tom Weyandt, who’s recommending that the state begin buying right of way for the Beltline’s new path. “I think our recommendation is pretty clear that it’s a valuable line, that it performs well compared to other potential transit lines in this region.”

Meanwhile, engineers working on the Beltline’s feasibility study are coming up with alternative routes that could fundamentally change the shape of the line and, better yet, bypass the tracks that rail companies lord over.

“We’re still looking at the Beltline as it was originally conceived and will at least sit down with the rail lines,” says Grady Smith, senior transportation manager for URS Corp., the consulting firm hired by MARTA for $2.5 million to study and fine-tune the Beltline concept. “But we’re thinking there are better connections to activity centers and the MARTA system as a whole, and we’re thinking about getting around the inner core, similar to places like Portland. In fact, we’re thinking it could be leveraged into even more.”

The most striking change Smith and his team are looking into involves laying light rail tracks into Marietta Boulevard and Northside Drive, a route that would swing by the new aquarium, the proposed World of Coca-Cola mixed-use development, the Georgia Tech campus and the Georgia Dome. It would also pass the flurry of new development going up on the west and northwest side of downtown.

To skip around CSX’s freight yard across Boulevard near the Fulton Cotton Mill Lofts, the new and improved Beltline route may even travel down Moreland Avenue — from the Carter Center, through Little Five Points and past the Sembler development now under construction on the old Atlanta Gas Light property — before it turns west to intersect with the Inman Park/Reynoldstown MARTA station.

“As we move forward, we’re developing alternatives, and looking at ways to get around the constraints,” Smith says. “We’re not saying that just because there are many constraints we’re giving up.”