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Issues & Legislative Goals

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Issues in Depth: Back to the Future with the Belt Line

Kudzu covers the Belt Line in Kirkwood
Kudzu covers the Belt Line along Kirkwood Ave. in Reynoldstown.

One answer to Atlanta's transportation and air quality problems may lie in kudzu covered abandoned rail lines that date back to the post-Civil War period.

Belt Line overpass on Metropolitan
Belt Line overpass
on Metropolitan

Those rail lines, mostly abandoned now, form a 22-mile loop from Piedmont Hospital on the north, the Carter Center on the east, Atlanta Area Tech on the south, and the Wren's Nest on the west.

The old Belt Line can become the transportation link that puts Atlanta back together after being quartered by the construction of the Downtown Connector and I-20.

Imagine walking a few steps from your Grant Park home, catching a European-style tram, and zipping off for lunch at the King Plow Center.

Portland's stations are simple, unobtrusive
Portland's stations are
simple, unobtrusive

Imagine bicycle and pedestrian paths that engage diverse parts of the city. Imagine opening 4,000 acres for redevelopment that could accommodate 100,000 new residents - all of whom are a short walk from environmentally friendly transit.

Imagine a smart growth idea that does not cut through historic neighborhoods, but instead brings them together.

Seattle light rail brings neighborhoods together
Seattle light rail brings neighborhoods together

If you are interested in learning more, read the entire "Belt Line" presentation. You'll find out where the 45 stops will be. Is there one near you home? You'll see how cities like Portland, Oregon, Seattle, and New Orleans are using light rail and trolleys to connect neighborhoods.

Click here (requires Acrobat Reader) for the full presentation with photos and maps. (Link to Acrobat Reader will open in new window.

Show your support

To express your support for the inclusion of the Belt Line transit study in the draft Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) for 2003-2004 federal funding, send an e-mail to: opinion@atlantaregional.com

You can make specific reference to the project as the "Emory/Atlanta/South DeKalb Fixed Guideway Loop Study" (M-AR 272), a combined study of the Belt Line with the Downtown/South DeKalb light rail line.

The draft TIP will be finalized in the fall, and you can learn about public hearings through this web site. You can also fill out a survey about the draft TIP at: www.atlantaregional.com/MobilityAir/GetInvolved/public_opinion.html

Let the Atlanta Regional Commission know that you support the inclusion of alternative transit projects for Atlanta in the regional transportation plan.

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What others are saying

The little train that could
By John Sugg, Creative Loafing, April 17- April 23, 2002

Then one evening a couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with City Council President Cathy Woolard. She started effusing over some old railroad tracks that ring Atlanta. These tracks, many of them abandoned and now just kudzu corridors, could be transformed into something that would be true "mobility."

Woolard was excited. She was exhibiting that rarest of all traits among local pols - vision. Her enthusiasm was infectious - so much that I started jumping up and down with her and in the process dribbled tuna on my Jerry Garcia tie.

- excerpt from The little train that could
Creative Loafing, April 17- April 23, 2002

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Existing web of rail lines key to crafting better transit system
By Maria Saporta, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 1, 2002

They printed about 50 reports, complete with maps, for a proposed inner transit loop along existing rail lines that would connect with MARTA stations at five different points. In their report, they identified 40 potential stops ideally suited for a light-rail system.

The first person to jump on the idea was Cathy Woolard, then an Atlanta city councilwoman who chaired the transportation committee. Woolard, now president of the Atlanta City Council, continues to be enthusiastic about the idea.

She has gotten the concept included in an existing transit study that has been sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Lewis. The study should be completed in 2003, and it will provide the region some guidance on what future transit lines would make the most sense.

"It's an awfully good vision," Woolard said. "For the inside-the-Perimeter gang, we need a vision; we need to own an idea. We need to flesh out what we want, or we are not going to get anything."

As Woolard sees it, there's a major public policy question involved that critically looks at what transportation investments would reduce the number of single-occupancy-vehicles on the roads.

- excerpt from Existing web of rail lines key to crafting better transit system
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 1, 2002

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Summary of concept by Cathy Woolard with Ryan Gravel

The following article discussing the Belt Line Transit proposal appeared in the Southface Energy Institute Journal.

Transportation Alternatives for a Sustainable City

As Submitted to the April Southface Energy Institute Journal
by Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard,
with Ryan Gravel, Architect

Over the last half century, metropolitan Atlanta overlooked neglected but valuable urban land in search of easy development in surrounding forests and farmland. More recently, the negative effects of urban sprawl have led to new development in intown Atlanta. But without providing an adequate public transportation system for the increasing intown population, the resulting congestion and pollution are diminishing Atlanta's cherished quality of life. As local governments, companies and families begin to look toward Atlanta's future, a healthy regional discussion has emerged that examines how we can restructure the City so that it will continue to thrive in the twenty-first century. Much the same way as an infrastructure of highways led to suburban expansion and urban depopulation in the last forty years, an expansion of mass transit infrastructure will lead to both the revival of the inner city and the protection of our natural ecology and resources.

If the Atlanta region is going to experiment with transit-oriented development, there is no better place to begin than in the City's intown neighborhoods. These areas were built before the rise of automobiles by the extension of streetcars from the central city. That means they are well suited to transit because they were built at densities that support it. While the streetcars are gone, these historic communities are our model for smart growth, offering a mix of land uses, building types and family incomes, as well as schools, sidewalks and public parks. They also offer a sizable amount of underutilized urban land, which, because of its high dollar value will develop at greater densities than the single-family neighborhoods around them, making them particularly good locations for rail transit.

In fact, intown Atlanta has a tremendous amount of neglected urban land ready for reinvestment particularly on the City's south and west. Abandoned industrial land and obsolete commercial corridors dominate the public view, hiding attractive bungalow neighborhoods. The City also has a tremendous amount of urban redevelopment underway, increasing density and straining traffic, particularly on the City's north and east. On reclaimed industrial land and along renewed commercial corridors now stand tall condominiums, restaurants and grocery stores with limited transportation options in an auto-dominated landscape.

Perhaps too conveniently, many of these redevelopment sites (those under construction as well as those still in waiting) are strung together by several old "belt line" railroads. After the Civil War, these minor freight lines developed to serve the City's expanding industrial base, forming a roughly six-mile loop around downtown. Since they preceded urban expansion, bungalow streetcar suburbs were nestled up against them. The railroads, therefore, tend not to cut through historic neighborhoods, but instead lie at the seam between them, making these in-between spaces ideal sites for urban redevelopment. Furthermore, the belt lines are associated with a considerable amount of industrial land and most of the industries that remain have abandoned the rail lines, shifting to truck-based freight. As industry has grown in scale, many companies have moved to bigger sites outside of town, leaving behind beautiful old buildings and large chunks of land.

All of these factors lead what is known as the "Cultural Loop" or "Belt Line" proposal, that envisions new light rail or bus transit lines woven through the City on these existing belt line railroad rights-of-way and connected to five MARTA stations - Lindbergh, Inman Park/Reynoldstown, West End, Ashby and Bankhead. At a length of 22 miles with 45 stations, the Belt Line loops around downtown and midtown Atlanta on an hour and a half journey through over 4,000 acres of redevelopment sites. With over half of that land suitable for residential and mixed-use development, between 60,000 to 100,000 future residents can be accommodated in new mixed-use, brownfield, transit-oriented districts. Furthermore, the Belt Line slides between 40 historic intown neighborhoods, which would be protected from high-density development through zoning, but reinvigorated with infill housing on vacant land and commercial and cultural districts in appropriate areas.

More than just an improved network of public transportation, however, the Belt Line is a transportation greenway, circling the central city as a linear park, connecting big city parks like Piedmont, Freedom, Grant, Perkerson and Maddox Parks and little neighborhood parks like Stanton, Adair, Washington and Tanyard Creek Parks. Bicycle and pedestrian paths join light rail or bus transit, engaging parts of Atlanta as different as Brookwood Hills and Pittsburgh, Piedmont Hospital and Zoo Atlanta. It connects Ansley Mall to the King Plow Arts Center and City Hall East to the Wren's Nest in West End. Furthermore, with an influx of new residents moving closer into the City, the Belt Line accesses developable land and re-uses historic urban fabric in ways that contribute to the health of urban neighborhoods. In conjunction with other public policies, it provides transit-oriented sites for mixed land uses, multiple housing types and a broad range of family incomes. Stations would be designed for neighbors and would more resemble bus stops than MARTA stations, eliminating elevated platforms, turnstiles, escalators and parking lots.

The Belt Line proposal was presented at a community town hall that I held last year as the District Six Councilmember, and I was greatly encouraged by the public interest in this transportation alternative. As Chair of the City Council Transportation Committee last year, I presented this proposal to the committee members, and this year, the City Council passed a resolution in support of having MARTA conduct a feasibility study for the belt line. Funding for that study, in conjunction with a study of a light rail line to connect downtown Atlanta with South DeKalb, was included in the 2003-2005 Transportation Improvement Program by the Atlanta Regional Commission.

This project is not the only answer to Atlanta's problems. It lays out a strategy for building infrastructure in ways that accomplish public goals - such as renewed neighborhoods, clean air and multiple means of transportation. It envisions a complex network of infrastructure, connecting all parts of the region including new rail service to South DeKalb and Emory, not to mention possible further destinations. In order for Atlanta to grow sustainably and thrive in the twenty-first century, we must find better ways to grow. Growth is spurred in part by public policy and public investment in infrastructure. The kind of infrastructure we invest in is critical to the health of our economy, our communities and our families.

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Belt Line Transit Study - February 4, 2002 The Council adopted a resolution, introduced by Councilmember Lamar Willis in partnership with me, in support of a study to determine the feasibility of the Belt Line or Cultural Loop concept - the idea of creating light rail or trolley transit along existing railroad rights-of-way that encircle intown Atlanta. The study, which is to be conducted by MARTA with funding through the Atlanta Regional Commission in 2003, will move the City closer to providing alternative public transportation to Atlanta residents. (Legislation - requires Adobe Acrobat Reader) (will open in a new window)

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