The little train that could

Do cars equal mobility? Hah! How about a trolley loop around the city?

John Sugg - 17 Apr 2002

(Creative Loafing link)

There's a columnist at a local newspaper-of-declining-circulation who likes to rant on about Atlanta's need for "mobility," by which he means well-heeled white guys careening at unrestrained speeds down I-75 in their SUVs.

Then we have a governor who wants to spend $2.4 billion to moonscape outlying burbs with the Northern Arc -- claiming the highway will increase "mobility" -- while ignoring the obvious truth that it will gush oodles of development that will only further gag roadways.

And, of course, we have a panoply of "grassroots" groups (odd how they smell like Astroturf) that do "studies" showing Georgians just luuuuuuuuv roads because we all want more "mobility." I'm shocked one survey or another hasn't found that we'd prefer more roads to good, sweaty sex, but I'm sure that oversight will be remedied soon. The latest poll, paid for by road builders, developers and bankers (aka The Unholy Trinity) found that 61 percent of us can't conceive of life or the survival of Western Civilization without the Northern Arc. What a surprise!

I looked up this sacred incantation -- "mobility" -- and found that it means the "ability to physically move about." There's nothing about cars or roads in Webster's definition. A pogo stick or a Segway scooter or a healthy pair of legs or a wheelchair or a bicycle or a train can all define "mobility." It just depends on how fast you want to get there from here.

Indeed, if autos were the standard, Atlanta at 8:15 a.m. and 5:15 p.m. is the very embodiment of "immobility." And no amount of road building will ever fix that because highways attract developers just like shit lures flies.

Well, I get depressed thinking about Atlanta's quixotic quest for "mobility." How about you?

Moreover, the depression is nagging and incessant -- because we live in the middle of damn little mobility. I muddle over this mobility thing every day as I creep about the city in my own SUV. I mean, I just wish MARTA went somewhere that people, me for a start, needed to go (the airport line being a notable exception). MARTA was ill-conceived, used 19th-century technology that gobbled up tons of money, is inflexible, and currently is the archetype of featherbedding.

Sigh. I get even more depressed.

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 so that I started jumping up and down with her and in the process dribbled tuna on my Jerry Garcia tie.

So here's how we're all going to get mobile. It's such a damn good idea -- feasible, economical, sensible -- I'm sure politicians will do their damnedest to Deep Six it. But, who knows?

The story all starts three years ago when a Georgia Tech graduate student, Ryan Gravel, was looking at maps of Atlanta. He noticed a collection of rail lines ringing the inner city.

Along with other Tech students Mark Arnold and Sarah Edgens, Gravel fashioned a concept that could, like a laxative, unclog the immobility of Atlanta.

Gravel's idea became a graduate thesis. Then, the light bulb flashed over his head, and he thought that, gee, someone might take him seriously.

Woolard recalls that after a transportation measure had come before the city, she was dismally pondering the sad state of Atlanta's "mobility" while she sat in her office opening mail. "'We've got to do something,' I thought as I opened a letter," she says. "It was Ryan Gravel's proposal. I looked at it and said, 'Wow! This is great!'"

What Gravel dubbed the "beltline" forms an egg-shape circumference, stretching from the Lindbergh MARTA station on the north to Peoplestown south of Turner Field; Washington Park is on the west, and Inman Park on the east.

It strikes me that these old rail lines are at the heart of Atlanta's history. Many were built and strung together in a loop after the Civil War to provide the base of Atlanta's industrial and transportation economy. Proud pre-car neighborhoods grew up around the lines. Now, largely forgotten and ignored, the old tracks could be the key to the city's future as well.

The 22 miles of rail corridor, under Gravel's plan, would link 40 new stations as well as five MARTA hubs. The beltline would run through or adjoin many of Atlanta's historic neighborhoods. The existing corridors are generally wide -- sufficient to accommodate two tracks, plus paths for pedestrians and cyclists.

If Atlanta boasts more of anything than streets named Peachtree, it's air-headed transportation fantasies. And, truth is, there are some real problems with rail. If we built another MARTA-like system -- so-called "heavy" rail -- the cost would be astronomical. Such rail boondoggles always cost much more and carry far fewer riders than their touts project.

The bottom line is that cities in the last 30 years were sold the heavy rail lines by hucksters who gave trains a bad name. For example, to "fix" Miami's passenger-anemic Metrorail, which cost $1 billion during the same period that MARTA was built, would strap that city's taxpayers with a $16 billion tab. Sixteen billion dollars to fix a $1 billion deal -- that's hard-to-swallow math. To fix MARTA with more of the same would be equally daunting.

Light-rail systems have their own problems. Often they're built through suburban areas that don't have a dense enough population to make transit work. Moreover, commuter rails and buses running into urban centers don't stand a chance unless there's clean and efficient transit to get them around the city core.

In other words, for transit to work, it has to be integrated, a gestalt of many options. But, if you combine the inherent problems of transit with political imbecility, you have: Georgia. Sane-growth, comprehensive planning is anathema around these parts.

The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, the Atlanta Regional Council -- hell, probably the Boy Scouts as well -- all have great ideas about transportation. But, they're overwhelmed by the development dynamic. Developers want to build and profit while letting the rest of us pay for the mess they create.

Which brings us back to the beltline.

Among the maps Gravel has sketched is one that looks like someone spilled a bottle of yellow ink. The yellow splotches (gray on the preceding page) represent about 4,000 acres of land that is suitable for redevelopment. Much of it is industrial property adjacent to the tracks.

"That's the secret to what we're saying," Gravel says. "This could be developed at densities that support transit."

Noteworthy, Atlanta's older neighborhoods, where hundreds of thousands of residents live within an easy stroll of the proposed beltline, were built before the horseless carriage became the city's raison d'etre. Thus, these neighborhoods, too, are at transit densities.

And, sitting just inside the northwest quadrant of the beltline, on a spur rail, could be still another driving force to the concept. Atlantic Station, when completed, will be home to about 10,000 people and will, along with Bernie Marcus' aquarium, attract as many as 15 million shoppers and entertainment seekers each year.

"The whole idea of connecting to rail has been on our plate since Day One," says the project's director of design, Brian Leary. "Providing transportation options is not only the right thing to do, but it's necessary."

Part of the existing Atlantic Station plan is a "light rail" line heading out to Cobb County. Moreover, there are other transit proposals on the table -- for example, a C-shaped line coming in from the northwest and curving back into DeKalb County. These could be neatly integrated into the beltline. The whole system might actually achieve that most prized of all cliche buzzwords, synergy.

The actual trains (transportation people get all titillated if you use terms such as "rolling stock") are a far cry from MARTA's lumbering transit dinosaurs. The beltline will use vehicles resembling trolleys. Flexible, reasonably speedy, relatively cheap.

Stations, says Gravel, will be "glorified bus stops." But, they'll still be big enough so that a lot of politicians will be able to find wall space on which to plaster their names. For example, the stop closest to the federal pen could be named the Bill Campbell Memorial Station.

There will be a price tag. Half a billion? A billion? Quite likely. But compare that -- a system that will actually give people an alternative to cars and will relieve congestion -- to the $2.4 billion Northern Arc, whose inevitable related development will only make traveling in the suburbs even more hellish.

Moreover, the beltline would mitigate one giant cost of transit. The tracks are too old to be used, but the corridor already exists. Even compensating the rail owners and working out deals where the tracks are still used by freight trains would be far less expensive than carving a corridor (or a road) through neighborhoods and business areas.

Many good ideas evaporate unless someone finds a way to inject substance. A coalition of Woolard, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and some other local worthies have succeeded in including the beltline into the Atlanta Regional Commission's 2003-2005 transportation feasibility study.

Studies are, well, only studies. Studies need guts and vision to become reality. Sadly, let's not forget that over at a well-known high-crime area, the state Capitol, the denizens recently lopped $12 million in commuter rail funds from the budget -- despite the fact that those dollars would have generated $38 million in federal money. How many ways can the Georgia Legislature epitomize stupidity?

The fact that the beltline would actually provide an effective, efficient and, heck, cool way to scoot around the city -- and, with MARTA, link to the major business hubs -- may not make a whiff of difference to the politicians.

Then again, the beltline does offer those 4,000 acres of redevelopment land. So, maybe, just maybe, with so much potential for DEVELOPMENT, the beltline stands a chance.

Senior Editor John Sugg can be reached at 404-614-1241 or at | atlanta | pkd | fusion | recipes | email