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BeltLine Rail: Bait-and-Switch?

BeltLine transit rendering The current rate of transit development along the Atlanta BeltLine will result in decades passing before the vision this rendering presents to Atlanta taxpayers is close to being fulfilled. Credit: Sixpitch

By Guest Columnist PATTY DURAND, co-chair of BeltLine Rail Now

You’d think if Atlanta leaders had a way to extend reliable rapid transit to dozens of neighborhoods, connecting them to existing MARTA rail at multiple points – and do it relatively cheaply – they’d jump at the chance.

Patty Durand

Patty Durand

Yet MARTA and the city of Atlanta are shoving that project to the back of the line. Instead, they’re prioritizing more expensive, less effective, ways of getting people around an increasingly traffic-choked metro core, while putting off a solution already years in the making and is one that citizens want.

Maybe you’ve heard about it. It’s called the Atlanta BeltLine, and we’ve been talking about it for 20 years now. It runs through more than 40 neighborhoods on a right-of-way separated from stop-and-go traffic. Like a wheel and spokes, it crosses MARTA’s existing rail lines at multiple points and intersects more than 30 bus lines.

Transit has been central to the BeltLine since Ryan Gravel first delivered his thesis to city leaders in 1999, and transit is the reason city leaders took it up. “It was the thing that made the BeltLine for everyone,” says Gravel. It is transit connectivity that makes the BeltLine so transformative – it’s not just about jogging paths and shiny new buildings, it’s about stitching over 40 neighborhoods together.

Putting new rail on a corridor of abandoned and out-of-use rail will boost mobility inexpensively in a city in desperately need of a bypass for its clogged arteries. That vision is why the city of Atlanta created the BeltLine Tax Allocation District in 2005 to provide funding for revitalizing 22-miles of historic railroad corridors circling downtown. Progress on the other BeltLine goals of parks and trails, and some measure of affordable housing, has been made – with no progress on transit. However, there is a legal obligation created with the TAD bond instruments that the entirety of the Beltline, including transit, be completed by 2030.

BeltLine transit rendering

The current rate of transit development along the Atlanta BeltLine will result in more than two decades passing before the vision this rendering presents to Atlanta taxpayers is close to being fulfilled. Credit: Sixpitch

City leaders realized that the TAD was not enough money for BeltLine transit, so in 2016 citizens were asked to approve another source of revenue for the transit component via a ballot initiative. The BeltLine rail was the top transit project presented when Atlanta residents voted by a margin of nearly 3-to-1 to support a 1/2-percent sales tax increase for more transit.

What does the downtown streetcar loop have to do with the BeltLine? Before the 2016 vote, citizens were told by MARTA that no part of the sales tax would go to support the empty downtown streetcars, which citizens don’t like. Three years later, the opposite has happened: In the plan MARTA approved in June, the No. 1 priority is extending the downtown streetcar route out to Ponce City Market. When you hear officials talking about how “BeltLine” rail is coming in the next decade, that’s what they’re talking about – less than a mile and a half of transit along the Eastside Trail tacked onto more mixed-traffic streetcar.

No wonder that city leaders hid the truth: The streetcar runs largely empty, gets stuck behind errantly parked cars and doesn’t work when big crowds flock downtown – the very moment when transit is needed most. It’s a punching bag for opponents of transit, and a punch line for everyone else.

Streetcar stuck behind vehicle

The fixed-rail Atlanta Streetcar operates at the mercy of any vehicle parked, or in this case stalled, in its path. Credit: Darin Givens

BeltLine rail would do more than any other transit project to provide mobility to underserved communities. Yet, under current plans, Ponce City Market would also be the destination for a second big-ticket, high-priority project – a bus rapid transit line along North Avenue. While Ponce City Market is an excellent redevelopment and we love its connection to the BeltLine, transit-dependent neighborhoods in Atlanta lie along the southern edge of the BeltLine corridor, not along North Ave.

Even more scandalous is the priority given to the Clifton Corridor spur to Emory University. Beyond the dubious way Emory was shoehorned into Atlanta after the transit vote, in order to take advantage of tax revenues from the 2016 tax referendum, the bulk of this wealthy area’s workforce comes from north DeKalb and Gwinnett counties. It’s a regional project that needs multijurisdictional support, which it currently lacks, while doing little for Atlanta commuters. And with no right-of-way acquired or required federal studies approved, it’s the opposite of shovel-ready.

BeltLine Car ownership

This map shows the location of transit-dependent neighborhoods, where the darkening colors represent fewer vehicles registered per person. The green line represents the Atlanta BeltLine. Credit: Atlanta

By comparison, most of the BeltLine corridor is already in public hands. And since the corridor is using abandoned and out-of-use rail beds, there will be no traffic congestion such as the Atlanta streetcar experiences. The BeltLine has gone through more extensive environmental and engineering studies than any other rail project on the list. And at an estimated $55 million a mile, it’s far more cost effective than a streetcar extension ($75 million per mile) or the Clifton Corridor ($200 million per mile).

Given that a survey by the Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. shows that 75 percent of respondents were not satisfied with the delay in BeltLine rail transit, and that 80 percent of respondents say they would ride it, it’s time for this project to receive the priority it deserves – and that it legally requires.

City leaders proceed with the current transit construction timeline at their own risk: Legal action against City of Atlanta for not fulfilling the obligations of the BeltLine TAD, as well as promises made to citizens leading up to the 2016 transit sales tax referendum, is under review. And there certainly won’t be public goodwill for future requests for self-taxing projects if BeltLine rail isn’t a priority now.

Note to readers: Patty Durand and Matthew Rao serve as co-chairs of BeltLine Rail Now, a non-profit citizen action group advocating for the rail portion of the Atlanta BeltLine. BRN is organizing a march on Oct. 6, starting at 2 p.m. at the Old 4th Ward skatepark, located on the BeltLine’s Eastside trail. For more information, email BRN at [email protected] 

 

BeltLine income map

This heat map shows median household income, with cooler blue colors related to lower incomes and hotter shades of red representing higher incomes. The numbers relate to planned transit projects. Credit: Yonah Freemark

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14 Comments

  1. Kevin H. Posey September 23, 2019 10:24 am

    If the calendar said that the year was 2015, I would agree with this column 100%. Unfortunately, time has marched on and short-haul transit is rapidly becoming obsolete due to the micromobility revolution. Few people will be willing to wait 10-15 minutes on a tram to go from Ponce City Market to Krog Street if a micromobility device is handy or if they have their own (like an e-bike).

    The Netherlands points the way towards the transportation future Atlanta should embrace. Short trips are made via micromobility (in this case, bikes) on infrastructure that is typically protected from motorists. Incidentally, those with mobility impairments use these paths and lanes, too. Trams and buses take care of medium-haul trips, while trains handle longer distances.

    Of all the streetcar lines currently proposed in the current Atlanta plan, only the Clifton Corridor makes practical sense. The trips are likely to be medium-haul, given the distance between key destinations.

    It is unfortunate that too many promises were broken in this process, but that’s politics. Perhaps if proponents of BeltLine rail had focused on this project early, rather than on other issues, it might already be in place and this conversation would be moot.

    But now history has passed the BeltLine streetcar by. We cannot afford to let the land reserved for it remain idle, as the path is too crowded with pedestrians and those on bikes or scooters. A parallel, paved path should be constructed for users on wheels so that the path can function as a useful transportation corridor AND maintain a park-like setting. Safety concerns demand it.

    It is high time Atlanta moved on from a plan that’s now two decades old. Let’s count our blessings that we realized its obsolescence before we spent hundreds of millions on it.Report

    Reply
  2. Nick Mulkey September 23, 2019 3:20 pm

    We must build rail on the beltline for its true benefits to be witnessed. Right now it serves as a great recreational amenity and bike path but w dedicated lane light rail/streetcar, and reorganized bus lines to feed into it, it could be the final piece of infrastructure needed to enable true carless living within the city.

    By enabling people to get from SW Atlanta to NE/E Atlanta and vice versa EFFICIENTLY w/o a car, we immediately lower the cost of living in the city by hundreds of dollars. We would also boost the productivity and quality of life in the city, particularly of transit dependent workers who have to contend w hours of bus travel just to get to and from work.

    While I understand improvements in ride share and micro mobility reduce the need for transit trips that are only one or two stops away, it does not do anything for the person who needs to travel greater distances, which is why infrastructure such as light rail and commuter rail will still be relevant and very much so needed.

    How and why this is even a discussion at this point is beyond baffling and disheartening. Those of us who study cities and urban development, know how far a completed ring on the beltline will take us in terms of mobility, equity, and improving cost of living. This is really a no brainer. Fund Beltline rail ON THE ENTIRE LOOP.Report

    Reply
  3. Carl Holt September 23, 2019 3:56 pm

    Oh by the way, a little research would go a long way. MARTA owns the Downtown Streetcar now.
    https://leadership.saportareport.com/transit/2018/06/04/marta-to-assume-operations-of-atlanta-streetcar/Report

    Reply
  4. J. T. Firefly September 23, 2019 7:47 pm

    That just makes the case against it even stronger. The city foisted the streetcar on MARTA once voters approved more money for transit, leaving us stuck with a useless rolling Hindenburg.
    Sorry, that’s unfair. I mean, say what you want about the Hindenburg, but it actually carried passengers.Report

    Reply
  5. C Sparrow September 24, 2019 9:53 am

    Weather adversely effects micro mobility. Instead of rail, should we consider rubber tires in concrete tracts? Probably much cheaper and more flexible than rail. And, couldn’t there be room for both transit and micro-mobility in the Beltline space?Report

    Reply
  6. Steve Hagen September 24, 2019 9:58 am

    Why or why before laying expensive rails do not cities paint proposed routes with huge lines and allow trolley type small buses to run on a route to see if it is used? Even give this limited route to a private company! Is this too simple? Are there any transit professionals who can tell us this is just stupid and not worth the cost of the paint to mark the streets?Report

    Reply
  7. Eric Goldberg September 24, 2019 10:47 am

    J.T. Firefly, you’re conflating the downtown street car with BeltLine light rail. The downtown steeer car runs in traffic, has no dedicated right of way, and doesn’t run on the BeltLine.

    Because it doesn’t have a dedicated right of way and was built in a vacuum without any connecting points to MARTA, it was I’ll conceived and destined to fail.

    The 22-miles of light rail would have a dedicated right of way and multiple connections to MARTA rail. It indeed would serve as a hub and spoke system transporting folks from Pittsburgh in SW Atlanta to Buckhead. West End to Midtown. A game changer easing Intown congestion and getting transit starved Atlantans in SE and SW Atlants to job centers in downtown, Midtown and Buckhead.Report

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  8. Thomas Dean September 24, 2019 12:02 pm

    Who is responsible for the incredibly stupid street car to nowhere? It was designed to fail and discredit any notion of effective light rail in the future.

    The city needs to follow through on Beltline rail. It will actually help solve Atlanta’s traffic woes. Relying on little disposable electric scooter toys is not a solution for a real city.Report

    Reply
  9. urbangardener September 24, 2019 12:34 pm

    The streetcar was originally conceived and championed by Dewberry (Maria plz correct me if i’m mis-remembering the developer) to run up and down Ptree, connecting existing work nodes and food nodes and tourist nodes. Brilliant – connect existing scads of folks with work and lunch destinations and doctor’s visits and play. Then he got cancer, had to bow out, it became a political football downtown and then Shirley Franklin waved her wand and it transferred to Auburn Ave.

    The Beltline became the development-wolf in transit-sheeps’-clothing about 2-3yrs after the process got going. Processes, grant money, discussions, all got hijacked, along with affordable housing (which kicked up the longest fuss). Rail transit was never serious; if so more land in the very tight ROWs would have been acquired early on and it certainly was not, instead the brilliant folk at ABI overpayed Wayne Mason for his section (and toasted their finances) and then Vulcan Quarry made out like bandits because ABI couldn’t do basic commercial real estate math.

    The train tracks have never gone near any meaningful employment center; just now it’s PCM node, one spot for 3miles. And most of the folks who really work there pull sufficient salary to live in adjoining neighborhoods. The beltine node locations will never pull major employment centers away from quick access to the interstates.

    A street trolley system to connect existing employment hubs with the beltline connecting residential to the trolley and improving folks’ quality of life is, in the end, much more practical.

    One of the reason folks are so happy now living intown is their walks on the beltline. You may not be able to buy happiness, but the somehow the collective dingbats of atlanta development managed to build it in spite of themselvesReport

    Reply
  10. Patty Durand September 24, 2019 1:43 pm

    A few replies to the comments:

    Carl: of course we know MARTA owns the streetcar now. My point with the link in the paragraph about the streetcar was shown with the last Q&A on page 2 in which MARTA assures prospective 2016 referendum voters that it has no plans to use transit money raised for the streetcar, illustrating the bait & switch. That MARTA felt the need to distance the 2016 vote from funding for the streetcar illustrates the fact they knew citizens wouldn’t vote for more streetcar.

    Kevin: no one loves scooters and micromobility more than I do; I’ve ridden scooters more than 30 times and own an electric bike that I ride everywhere. The idea that micromobility is a viable substitute for transit is incorrect. People cannot ride scooters or electric bikes in the rain, when it’s very cold, if they have a disability or balance issues; or if they are carrying computers or packages. They are dangerous for the very old or very young; and the city has banned their use at night. Furthermore, the bonding agreement as part of the TAD requires transit as a component of the BeltLine. There is no ‘passing by’ legal requirements for bonds or tax abatement agreements or tax referenda. Finally, the Netherlands has invested over 3 billion Euros on transit and has the most extensive LRT network in the world that they continue to expand. Their commitment is LRT as a mobility solution for their citizens is inspiring.

    C Sparrow and Steve, the rail corridor already exists. It cannot be paved without huge expense, and it makes no sense to do so when upgrading the tracks for new transit is much more affordable than other options as shown in the MARTA technical analysis cost link in the 3rd paragraph from the end. Repurposing unused rail beds for much-needed transit is the vision behind Atlanta citizen’s embrace of the BeltLine. This embrace can be seen in polls, public hearings, and the 2016 tax increase vote for transit.

    Urban Gardener: ABI has certainly made many mistakes, not the least of which is losing focus on their mandates for affordable housing and for transit. I couldn’t agree with you more. We are hopeful the new ABI CEO Clyde Higgs will bring accountability to their operations.Report

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  11. Kevin H. Posey September 24, 2019 2:25 pm

    Ms. Durand,

    With all due respect, is it really your contention that people cannot or will not bike in the rain? This will surely come as a surprise to those I know in The Netherlands, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Washington and Vancouver who ride both conventional and electric-assist bikes in weather far harsher than anything experienced here.

    Your contention that bikes can’t carry cargo is also a bit unusual, as I’ve seen cargo bikes on the BeltLine. One was hauling scooters away to be charged. I’ve also noticed scooter users carrying shoulder bags, so they are quite suitable for hauling some things. I don’t see a scenario in which a streetcar is suitable for hauling bulky items.

    Your characterization of Dutch rail infrastructure is inaccurate, I’m afraid. Very few cities have rail similar to what is proposed for the BeltLine. Some cities have even exiled short-haul transit from their cores, entirely. It’s simply no longer needed, as they’ve invested heavily in LIT paths. These are heavily used by those with mobility issues.

    My article covers all of this. I suggest you and your group read it with an open mind. Atlanta’s top transportation priority must be improving micromobility infrastructure. BeltLine rail was a good idea in its day (I was a supporter up until a year ago), but that day has passed.
    https://saportareport.com/saving-the-atlanta-beltline-a-shift-from-transit-to-micromobility/Report

    Reply
  12. Tallyho September 24, 2019 5:39 pm

    There are several reasons to disagree with this story

    1. Light rail is expensive, inflexible, and the wrong technology for 2019. Instead, if one assumes we really should put transit on the beltline, electric BRT is the right technology
    2. I wouldn’t presume the beltline is really the right place to put transit. Most of it is low density housing meaning low ridership. And with kids and dogs all over the beltline, do we really want 20 ton vehicles moving down it? I look forward to all the safety problems that crop up
    3. The spare room would be better used for commuter bicycle lanes separating bicyclists and walkers/runners
    4. Connecting to Emory/CDC is a great idea, it is the largest employment gun not connected to transit in atlanta – which actually helps support RIDERSHIP

    So in summary, a lot of bad premises made in this article. Feel free to ignore and let Marta and others figure this out.

    More important is getting the beltline path completed to connect neighborhoods. Many gaps remain. Don’t distract us from the goal- connectivity!Report

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  13. Tallyho September 24, 2019 6:01 pm

    Patty

    Time has moved on. Let the beltline be for bikes and pedestrians. We will use BRT to move people on longer hauls around the city without spending nearly as much money.

    You’re swimming upstream against the current of time and innovation.Report

    Reply
  14. Chris September 26, 2019 3:52 pm

    Perhaps it’s a lack of vision on my part, but I struggle to see how rail will work adjacent to the trail. For it be fast and take advantage of the exclusive ROW it will need a high fence and gates to keep people from crossing in front of, which would limit access to one side and sever the connectivity forming around the Beltline; Or it will run very slowly to allow it to quickly stop if someone comes in front, in which case it’s not very useful transit.Report

    Reply

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