Rail is an essential part of the promise of the Atlanta BeltLine
This image is from the 1998 Atlanta Regional Commission transportation plan. The lines of sprawling, outward population growth were intense at the time.
That outline in the center is not the city limits of Atlanta, it’s the “railroad cordon” which we now know as the Atlanta BeltLine. This former rail line, which once marked the center of urban disinvestment and population loss, is now a place where growth is happening.
I walked this rail line before any of it became a BeltLine path. It was a nice walk but there was not much to see. Many years later, there’s a multiuse trail and also lots of new homes and destinations around it. And many years from now, when people are stepping off of light-rail trains, there will be even more homes and destinations.
Being intentional with rail-served population growth in Atlanta
Population growth and development intown is not a question. All credible forecasts show an upward trend. People and investments are coming — that much we can’t control.
How the growth fits into the urban fabric, and how it fits into out mobility structures, and what income levels are being welcomed, and how much greenery is around — this is what we can control. The BeltLine plan is part of the intentional design for channeling that growth into a format that helps us build a better and more equitable city as we gain more people and more places.
And importantly, it helps us serve those people and places with rail transit as part of the effort to add more people to the city while reducing the number of car trips and leaving more room on surface streets for pedestrians and cyclists.
Will our More MARTA spending support the BeltLine?
Along with an affordable housing and displacement strategy (which needs improvement and must happen first), rail transit is an essential piece of the promise of what the BeltLine can do for the city, and it needs to be prioritized in MARTA’s use of our intown transit tax, dubbed More MARTA— pay attention, because there’s talk that it might not be.
Without rail, the whole plan falls apart and the BeltLine is reduced to a gentrification machine with nice trails for the people lucky enough to be able to bike and walk on them, in good weather. Transit is part of what makes this thing equitable. Everyone can ride a train, no matter what their age or physical ability is, and everyone deserves access to the mix of urban developments that will continue to sprout around this project over the years.
Update from August 2018
The above was written in March. As of August, it has become clear that the MARTA board, along with partners in City of Atlanta leadership, are not prioritizing the BeltLine rail plan with the More MARTA tax revenue, despite the fact that a MARTA survey with thousands of responses pegged it as a top priority.
Here’s the plan for rail they’ve come up with, below, and here’s a good writeup in Atlanta Magazine on the problems with it.
Notice that it only puts rail on about seven miles worth of the 22-mile BeltLine loop. It also adds rail to Emory through the “Clifton Corridor,” which I don’t think we should be funding solely with City of Atlanta revenue. Given the cost of that line, and the fact that it will pass through so much area dominated by single family homes (lacking rail-appropriate density), it’s basically an expensive commuter line. One that’s needed for the region, no doubt. But the region needs to put some skin in that spending game.
It also very awkwardly connects the Atlanta Streetcar to new rail in what will likely be yet more lanes shared between the streetcar and car traffic, a terrible idea.
I’m no transportation planner. I’m not going to make specific suggestions for routing. But I will say this: all the research I’ve seen points to dedicated-lanes as being one of the keys for rail success. Shared traffic with street rail works in some old European cities where people have long gotten used to the idea of slow movement between a tight density of destinations, but that doesn’t describe Atlanta. Maybe some day.
For now, our best bet for rail spending would be on dedicated lanes. The BeltLine is one big dedicated lane with growth happening around it.