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?