Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Strange Doings on the Atlanta Beltline

Thanks to RailNews.net, I came across this blog entry at Creative Loafing. Apparently there's a plan to connect several old train rights-of-way around Atlanta - some idle, some in heavy use - and put in a light-rail line and a multi-use trail. After some real-estate shenanigans, the public-private partnership managing the project has gotten Norfolk Southern to file for abandonment of the Northeast section, but this is currently being blocked by Amtrak and the Georgia DOT.

The Fresh Loaf blog entry and an open letter it quotes from Mayor Franklin are full of outrage, but a few things bother me about this whole deal. First of all, any time I hear the words "file for abandonment" I get suspicious. Second, I always worry about all-or-nothing deals, public-private partnerships and unaccountable authorities. Third, while Amtrak's filing is fairly straightforward and dwells on the merits of the proposal, the response from the Beltline lawyers is smug and rests on legal technicalities. Fourth, tax-increment financing is a risky proposition.

I've never been to Atlanta, unless you count changing planes, so take this with a grain of salt. But after going through the Amtrak filing and perusing some maps, I've figured out what it is they're saying: the current route of the Crescent skirts the northern edge of Atlanta (to the extent it has an edge) and stops at a station four miles from downtown. The current proposal for high-speed rail along the Crescent corridor would instead use the northeast beltline segment to get onto an east-west corridor that goes right through the middle of downtown, stopping at a new "Multimodal Station." If the corridor is abandoned, trains from the northeast to the multimodal station would have to take the "trunk line" around and approach the station from the northwest, then presumably back out to continue on southwest to Alabama.

The beltline people are asking to condemn the northeast segment because they want to run light rail on it. Due to FRA rules, you can't run light and heavy rail on the same tracks at the same time. From Google's satellite pictures, it looks like the right-of-way is wide enough for two tracks and not much else. You might be able to squeeze a trail in there alongside the tracks, but you wouldn't get four tracks plus a trail. The beltline people want light rail and a trail, so no heavy rail.

I can kind of see the beltline reasoning, but overall I think that Amtrak and GDOT have the better position. The bottom line is that it's really hard to get good rail corridors, and high-speed rail is much more important than local light rail. This is an existing heavy rail corridor, which is very valuable. It should only be abandoned if the beltline advocates can come up with an alternative right-of-way for the high-speed rail. Say, converting two of I-85's fourteen lanes to rail?


Unknown said...

The beltline project has been around for a while, check out the MARTA website for the info. It would effectively create a true circumferential route in one of the most poorly designed, sprawled out environments on earth. The Amtrak/HSR proposal is a good one, but we can't complain about how transit unfriendly our cities are if we don't commit to radically changing them...I think the beltline is utterly important.

Alon Levy said...

I don't think you're right that HSR is more important than local light rail. It might be so in places like New York and Los Angeles, which have a reasonable chance of getting HSR soon, but Atlanta is just too car-oriented and too far away from other major cities.

Even the current plans aren't really HSR, but rapid rail running at 110 mph, which is uncompetitive with cars. Even the 125-mph Acela has trouble competing, and that's a line serving large, gridlocked, transit-friendly cities.

Anonymous said...

"rail running at 110 mph, which is uncompetitive with cars"


Cap'n Transit said...

Scott, I don't see why it's so critical for the beltline to be a full circle. If people can transfer to commuter rail for the northeast segment, what's the problem?

Alon, maybe I wasn't clear: intercity rail (at any speed) seems to be more important than light rail in this corridor. And I'm not going to write anyone off as being "too car-oriented." If a place is too car-oriented, that's an argument for building more rail infrastructure, not less.

Owen Evans said...

The idea that this is the only feasible route for intercity rail to get to the MMTC is ridiculous.

Is this the only feasible way to get the Crescent, on its current routing, to the MMTC? Yes. Does that matter? No. I don't see any reason to ruin the entire beltline project - which has a lot of momentum behind it RIGHT NOW, for a marginally useful train that stops in Atlanta just once a day. Besides, it's been stopping at 1688 Peachtree for decades now. There's no pressing need to change that - even if the MMTC is finally built for the Lovejoy line. Or maybe it would make sense to build a new station for the Crescent at Lenox, for a connection with MARTA.

There are plenty of reasons why the Decatur Belt is not needed for HSR. First, last time I checked, HSR is not planned to travel Washington-Atlanta-Birmingham. It's supposed to go Washington-Atlanta-Macon. So MMTC access is no problem there, with north-south platforms. But if the HSR route is modified to connect to Birmingham, then find some other route for it, like I-20 corridor. The Crescent's current route to Birmingham wouldn't be very valuable for HSR anyway, since it's so curvy and goes through the center of so many small towns.

Scott said...

The Beltline project has been underway for years and GDOT had plenty of opportunity to step in, but they waited till the last minute to raise objections to the NE route. Last Fall, the Transit Planning board (including GDOT) approved Concept 3 which includes routes for the Beltline and proposed commuter rail lines feeding into a new rail station downtown. This is probably more about trying to get stimulus funding diverted away from transit projects so GDOT can build more roads, etc.