By David Pendered
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed says the planned transit system along the Atlanta BeltLine should be funded through a public private partnership.
“We’re going to have to have a public private partnership,” Reed said. “We’re going to need to partner with an investor to put up $3 [billion] to $4 billion to put up the rail component. … I believe that is the right way to go because I’d like to ride the light rail while I’m alive.”
If the project moves forward, the price would dwarf the $840 million network of managed lanes the state Department of Transportation is building in Cobb and Cherokee counties alongside I-75 and I-575 through a public private partnership. This project is the largest project of its kind in Georgia history.
The potential use of a public private partnership for BeltLine transit is a significant advancement in the eight-year-old discussion over how to pay for a transit system along the planned 22-mile loop around intown Atlanta neighborhoods.
A transit system has always been part of the BeltLine vision. The BeltLine is already reconnecting neighbors through a trail network. But without a transit system to link with MARTA and the Atlanta Streetcar, the BeltLine may be, at best, a linear park built atop a network of out-of-service rail lines.
Reed said he recognizes that the BeltLine has touched the soul of Atlantans. Because of this attachment to the BeltLine’s promise, Reed said he intends to take a year to work toward public acceptance of bringing in private funding to develop support for a public private partnership.
“Because the BeltLine is so personal, everybody is going to have to say, ‘We’re OK,’” Reed said. “Folks in Atlanta need to decide that if we want light rail on the BeltLine, we’re going to have to fund it with a public private partnership. That’s going to take a year.
“I’ve briefed the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership board, and I’m going to brief the Atlanta BeltLine board,” Reed said.
Reed delivered his remarks Wednesday night at the monthly meeting of the Northwest Community Alliance. The events of this meeting were largely overwhelmed by a simultaneous meeting to discuss the proposed community benefits deal regarding the future Falcons stadium.
Jim Stokes triggered the mayor’s comments with a question about the status of BeltLine transit. Stokes is now president of Sustainable Solutions Georgia, LLC, which advocates for public interest in various fields, and is the former head of organizations including Livable Communities of Metro Atlanta and Georgia Conservancy.
“The BeltLine has energized the city,” Stokes said. “Paul Morris is a great choice [as BeltLine CEO]. The time has come for BeltLine transit. I wonder what’s we are looking at.”
Reed began his response by noting Atlanta had recently won the largest TIGER 5 grant in the country. The $18 million grant will leverage $43 million as it helps build out paths and trails, Reed said. The award underscores the challenge of funding BeltLine transit without direct private investment.
The TIGER 5 grant is so large that it represents almost 40 percent of the entire $45 million raised from the private sector by the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, Reed said. The partnership was incorporated in February 2004.
Reed said the private sector has this level of money to invest.
“One thing President Clinton is so terrific about is convening investment bankers with mayors, through the Clinton Globan Initiative,” Reed said. The program connects bankers with mayors in search of private funding.
Reed also said that the development to date of the BeltLine’s public amenities has laid to rest concerns that the first improvements would be built in historically white communities at the expense of historically black communities. Linear parks have been developed, and land acquired for future trails, throughout the city. These developments will factor into the discussion about how to proceed with the development of a BeltLine transit system.
“In the black community, people thought the BeltLine was never going to come to them,” Reed said. “Now we can put that argument to bed, this equity question that, ‘It’s never going to come to my neighborhood.’”
Incidentally, at the 2012 ARC State of the Region breakfast, keynote speaker Bruce Katz said cities are going to have to figure out their own financial solutions to funding challenges. The days of the federal and state governments providing significant aid are over, said Katz, a vice president with the Brookings Institution.
The BeltLine concept always has been a public private partnership, in essence, though the term was not often applied.
Atlanta is using property tax revenue to acquire land and help develop the network of trails, parks and amenities. Private investors are developing housing and commercial structures in a special BeltLine tax allocation district. These new investments are creating the increase in property taxes that is paying for the public amenities.