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Transit experts dis the Beltline

The Beltline's about to take a big PR hit.

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A panel of transportation and planning experts is expected to issue a report Sept. 29 that offers the harshest criticism to date of the proposed 22-mile transit loop around the inner city. Atlanta officials want to turn the mostly unused train tracks into a bus or light-rail system flanked by greenspace and bike trails.

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A document described to CL as the final version of the report states: "It seems likely that ... portions of this loop will not generate sufficient ... ridership to justify investment."

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The panel, formed by the Atlanta Development Authority to study the Beltline's feasibility, was composed of some of the city's and country's most respected planners and traffic experts. Chairwoman Catherine Ross is director of Georgia Tech's Center for Quality Growth and Regional Development. Other members include American Public Transportation Association President William Millar, and Michael Dobbins, a Georgia Tech architecture professor and former Atlanta planning commissioner.

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The panel's criticisms could slow the Beltline's momentum at a critical point. Legislation to secure the project's funding through a "tax allocation district" is making its way through Atlanta City Council. Supporters argue that if the legislation doesn't pass council, the Atlanta School Board and the Fulton County Commission, the project will stall in its tracks.

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The report raises questions that have plagued the Beltline since it first was unveiled in Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel's 1999 thesis. For example, the report notes that the proposed transit loop has a least five gaps. There also are two places where the Beltline crosses a MARTA line about a half-mile from existing MARTA stations. And long stretches of the proposed route currently are being used by rail companies to haul freight.

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On a positive note, the authors say the Beltline's trails and parks would improve the city's quality of life, and the report tempers its criticism by stating that the findings should be used to ask questions rather than draw conclusions.

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It should be noted that the report focused only on current ridership projections, not on the potential ridership that development could spur.

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Several panel members contacted by CL wouldn't discuss the report before its release, and both Gravel and Beltline Partnership spokesman David Payne declined comment on a report they hadn't yet read.

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But Gravel previously has argued that one of the Beltline's greatest strengths is that it would encourage development in blighted parts of the city, particularly along the western stretch of the Beltline.

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As opposed to reacting to development once it's in place, as most transit systems do, Gravel says the Beltline would accommodate population growth by steering development to areas that would be served by the Beltline.

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Atlanta City Council will hold a public hearing on the Beltline's funding Oct. 6, 6-8 p.m., in Council chambers, 55 Trinity Ave. For more info, visit www.beltlinepartnership.org. For CL's endorsement of the Beltline, see www.clnlb.us.publicus.com/misc/beltline.html.



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