Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Amtrak, GDOT Belt Atlanta Beltline

The Beltline is a development project to transform 22 miles of underutilized rail lines circling Atlanta into a network of recreation trailsView Blog and light rail routes. Recently, Norfolk Southern filed application to abandon a 4.3 mile branch line on the northeast side of the city that would become part of the project. However, Amtrak and the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) have intervened, claiming the segment is needed for future commuter and high-speed intercity rail service.

GDOT claims the segment is essential to enabling future trains from northeastern Georgia and points north to reach a new depot proposed for downtown Atlanta. Amtrak's Crescent, the only intercity train serving Atlanta, stops at Brookwood station on the city's north side. GDOT says using part of the Beltline has been part of their plans since 1992.

However, Beltline and city officials say they were blindsided by the move. Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin claims: “Simply put, because of GDOT’s boorish behavior and AMTRAK’s willingness to play along, the future of the city of Atlanta is at stake.”

An article on the Creative Loafing website suggests that GDOT, which has sidetracked rail projects has woken up and smelled the money - economic stimulus money from the Obama administration that could be put toward rail projects.
“We’ve heard clearly from the Obama administration that high-speed rail is going to be something that is on their plates,” GDOT Commissioner Gena Evans says. “And we’re trying to think of ways to show that GDOT is committed to other modes of transportation. I’m ready to do something with commuter rail.”
Evans says her agency could live with commuter rail and light rail sharing the same right of way. But Beltline officials say that "wouldn’t mesh with the vision of parks, bike trails, mixed-use residential developments and pedestrian thoroughfares."

The impasse could work against Georgia — a state notorious for infighting among its transportation agencies — when it comes to the federal government’s generosity with infrastructure funding. Terri Montague, who as CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc. oversees the project’s planning and implementation, says new U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood already has been made aware of the dispute.

“Anybody looking for money for Georgia from the federal level is probably going to have to wait until there’s some sense of resolution here,” Montague says. “Our credibility as a state has been called into question. The discord is not looked upon favorably by the federal agencies.”

The situation reminds me of the Middle East where Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting over the same piece of precious land for more than 60 years. In this case, both projects have merit. Hopefully this will be resolved before someone starts lobbing missiles. Atlanta was burned to the ground once, and that was one time too many.

The good news is that earlier this week officials from Atlanta, GDOT, MARTA, Amtrak and other agencies agreed to resolve the dispute within 30 days.

More good news from Georgia: In an unrelated development, the state senate today approved a measure that would allow the 10 counties in the Atlanta metrolitan area to hold a voter referendum on using a new sales tax to fund highway, transit and rail projects. Even though they may gain the authorities, the counties may be hesitant to hold a vote in the current economic climate.

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