PASSENGER TRAINS BELONG DOWNTOWN
It just isn’t true.
The Georgia Department of Transportation is saying that if Amtrak and other passenger trains can’t use the BeltLine corridor that borders Piedmont Park, then commuter and high speed rail (including Amtrak) will not be able to serve the central city.
This position not only is without merit, but it also seems as though GDOT is trying to punish the city of Atlanta for challenging the future use of the BeltLine.
For starters, remember Atlanta’s very existence comes from the convergence of three railroad lines intersecting near the Five Points MARTA station. That’s why regional and city leaders stragically have planned to build a multimodal train station in the heart of downtown.
It’s no accident that Atlanta’s two historic train stations — Union Station and Terminal Station — were located in this same vicinity.
In the 1920s, there were as many as 325 passenger trains passing through Atlanta every day. As late as the 1950s, there were more than 100 passenger trains a day serving Atlanta.
And, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, none of those trains used the BeltLine path to get downtown.
Let me repeat that. The BeltLine rail corridor only served industrial users, not passenger trains. All passenger trains reached downtown through other lines.
So it is a total falsehood to say that the only way downtown Atlanta can get commuter rail, high speed rail and/or Amtrak is through the BeltLine corridor (also known as the Decatur Belt).
The vision for the BeltLine is to create a 22-mile ring of parks, trails, light rail, new homes, businesses and communities as a way to continue the city’s revitalization.
This vision has been formed through countless numbers of town hall forums, neighborhood meetings, planning studies and strong public support. And all those forums never called for heavy rail and high speed trains to disconnect these intown communities.
Then, at the 11th hour, GDOT objected to the city’s request to abandon the right to use the BeltLine as a heavy rail corridor. An uprising of community protests against GDOT has ensued.
But GDOT Commissioner Gena Evans didn’t stop there. She sent a letter Jan. 28, 2009 to her board with the following statements:
“If we drop our efforts to preserve passenger rail service on the Decatur Belt, the absolute and practical effect will be the following:
• There will be no Amtrak service within the city limits of Atlanta;
• There will be no high speed rail service within the city of Atlanta;
• We will need to move the MMPT (multimodal station) to a location outside the City to link with Amtrak , high speed and commuter rail and local transit providers;
• The City of Atanta will become incidental to all these services.”
Currently, all the involved parties are in a 30-day cooling-down period to study alternatives to using the Decatur Belt/BeltLine.
But for some reason, GDOT continues to state that passenger trains can’t come downtown without the BeltLine. The technical study committee, instead of focusing on how to bring passenger trains downtown, is concentrating on ways to move the multimodal station and all passenger rail service either outside the city or around Lenox or Lindbergh or Atlantic Station.
Such “solutions” would kill the grand plan that urban and transportation experts have had for decades to create a mega transit center that would serve as a connecting hub for the entire state and the Southeast. Nearly all of the land for the multimodal station downtown already has been secured, and the project would stimulate needed economic development in the central city.
These aren’t stale plans. The recently-approved “Concept 3” plan for regional transit by the Transit Planning Board (which included several state representatives) showed both light rail on the BeltLine and commuter/high speed rail serving downtown through the westside of town.
In talking to several railroad experts, it is clear that it is technically feasible for Amtrak, intercity passenger rail and commuter trains to serve downtown. Some tracks downtown would need to be restored between Armor Yard, the Howell Junction and the multimodal station. That would permit trains to easily turn at the station, which would take about the same time as the BeltLine detour.
If worse came to worse, some trains might need to backup for short distances, something that Amtrak does in several cities, including New Orleans. Again, if densely-built Manhattan can have high speed trains, commuter rail and Amtrak serving its Grand Central Station, it can — and should — happen in downtown Atlanta.
But city leaders should not let themselves be snookered by GDOT and abandon their dreams of a world-class transportation center next to the Five Points MARTA station (the hub of our public transit system) that is just a few feet away from our city’s zero mile post.
Stand up Atlanta — not just for the BeltLine, but for all passenger trains coming to our own grand central station in downtown Atlanta. They are NOT mutually exclusive.