GDOT, AMTRAK throw wrench in Beltline plans

An eleventh-hour move spells problems for Atlanta’s 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the Beltline, the 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit proposed to circle Atlanta, it’s that surprises are to be expected. And some interesting developments are afoot with the $2.8-billion project.

If you recall, Atlanta Beltline Inc. — the nonprofit agency in charge of planning and implementing the project — finalized its purchase of a 66-acre piece of property in October owned by Gwinnett County developer Wayne Mason and his son Keith, an Atlanta attorney. The Mason property included  land and transit right-of-way. The $66 million purchase riled city watchdogs not only for the ultimate payout to the Masons — more than double what father and son originally paid for the land in 2004 — but also the deal ABI cut with a private partner group it needed to buy out if it wanted to use tax-exempt bonds to finalize the purchase before a Halloween deadline. That’s background, and for all intents and purposes, irrelevant for the moment.

Beltline leaders hoped to complete planning the area, implement transit, and sell off excess land to developers. They would then re-invest the windfall from those sales back into the overall project. But before it could do anything with the property, it first had to abandon the transit right-of-way. That humdrum process is conducted by the U.S. Surface Transportation Board and largely involves just some time for public comment and a shuffling of papers. It was supposed to be a walk in the park.

Looks like that’s not turning out to be the case. An eleventh-hour move by the state Department of Transportation and AMTRAK has potentially thrown a wrench in the Beltline. And why those two odd entities decided to hold hands and insert themselves into the conversation — this late in the party — is making folks scratch their heads.