Existing web of rail lines key to crafting better transit system

Maria Saporta - 1 Apr 2002

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Inner loops. Outer loops. What few people realize is that Atlanta already has a network of loops. Except they are not multilane highways but rail lines.

Some of those rail lines are out of service, abandoned or underused. But the important fact is that they do exist --- presenting Atlanta a unique opportunity to become a true transit city.

For all of its merits, the MARTA rail system is still woefully inadequate. The system that stretches north-south, east-west is a far cry from the ideal hub-and-spoke system that has a multitude of connections, permitting people to get easily from one place to another.

By using existing railroad rights of way, Atlanta could build on its hub-and-spoke transit system. Perhaps more importantly, it could open thousands of acres to urban redevelopment.

The idea came out of a 1999 Georgia Tech graduate thesis done by Ryan Gravel, now an architect with Surber Barber Choate & Hertlein Architects. He teamed with fellow architect Sarah Edgens, who was interested in the redevelopment opportunities present along rail corridors.

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.

The region is projecting there will be another million residents by 2020. The biggest challenge will be to accommodate that influx of people without having worse congestion than we already have.

From that point of view, this inner transit loop has real potential.

Historically, these rail lines were developed after the Civil War to serve a growing commercial town with burgeoning industries, Gravel said. As the city grew, these industrial areas later were surrounded by inner-city neighborhoods, such as Virginia-Highland and Ormewood Park.

"Now all those industries have shifted to truck-based freight," Gravel said, adding that many of those industrial areas are vacant or are prime for mixed-use development.

Edgens and Gravel estimate that along the inner transit loop (which they call the Belt Line), 4,000 acres could be redeveloped for mixed uses and could accommodate up to 100,000 new urban residents. Congestion would be minimized because development would be spawned by a transit corridor.

The beauty of this idea is that this transit corridor could accommodate more than light rail. Gravel said the railroad right of way is wide enough to have side-by-side tracks for rail cars to go in opposite directions as well as have a parallel trail for pedestrians, bicyclists, scooters, Segways and joggers.

The PATH Foundation already has proposed as part of its upcoming campaign to have a rails-and-trails corridor from Ansley Park through Piedmont Park, over to the Carter Center and to DeKalb Avenue along an out-of-service Norfolk Southern line.

The Woolard proposal continues that same corridor, completing the loop in southeast Atlanta to Adair, Washington Park, Bankhead, Northside, Collier and Peachtree and back up to the Lindbergh MARTA station.

In most cases, the rail lines have divided residential areas with industrial developments. This concept would actually help bridge vibrant intown neighborhoods with new development --- using the rail corridors as connections rather than dividers.

"From an Atlanta perspective, what I like about this plan in particular is that it has an economic development aspect to it," Woolard said. "They can be development tools. It will help us provide appropriate development and appropriate density in Atlanta. I think this is a particularly cogent vision."

For intown neighborhoods, which fear fast-moving commuter trains going through their communities, Woolard said this idea should have great appeal.

Woolard said she has told neighborhood leaders: "You've got this great right of way behind your house. You better pick what you want on it."

There is another reason this proposal makes sense. No land need be acquired for a new corridor that could divide neighborhoods and face stringent community opposition.

"Building on this spine allows you to go along the path of least resistance," Woolard said. "You don't have big right-of-way fights. People can have either kudzu and vagrants, or a very big train, or this. It's all about quality-of-life issues."

As Edgens said: "These also could be greenways for walking, cycling and transit. They could be an incredible asset for Atlanta that we haven't seen before. These neighborhoods come right up to the lines, but the lines don't actually cut through them."

At long last, Atlanta leaders are beginning to think creatively about real solutions for its transportation problems and future land- use development. By adaptively reusing existing rail corridors, Atlanta can at long last become a city where people have choices on lifestyle and modes of transportation.


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