BeltLine Rail: A neighbor’s perspective

Many people know the Atlanta BeltLine as a wide path that connects some of the Northeast intown neighborhoods’ hot restaurants and shopping venues. But what many may not realize is that the BeltLine is more than just a conversion of abandoned train tracks into a walking path. In fact, the current trail is just one small part of a total re-imagining of Atlanta’s urban core industrial intown loop around the city’s center.

Here’s an aerial rendering of the entire BeltLine from 2013. The area highlighted in the neon green circle roughly marks the section most people are familiar with which runs between the Krog Tunnel and Ponce City Market. You can see Freedom Park and the Carter Center just below and to the left of the highlighted area.

Photo Credit: Atlanta Beltline Typologies, Revised 2013.

This map really helps illustrate the scale of the thing we call the BeltLine. It is not just a park but is a major citywide transportation initiative that has been in the works for decades. The original idea came at the end of the last century, 1999 to be exact, and it was slow to catch on. But as it gained traction and as Atlanta evolved into a hub of the Southeast United States, the project has taken shape. It has been a herculean endeavor involving dozens of neighborhoods, non-profits, city departments, state and federal agencies, multiple city-wide votes, and countless hours of work and money to get us this far. The vision — which always included a light rail component — is designed to make the BeltLine useful and accessible for everyone.

But without the rail component, it will remain nothing more than a linear sidewalk park.

So, before you say “NOMBY!” (Not On My Beltline Ya’ll) And before you join a fight to dismantle this beautiful idea, please take some time to understand it. Stick with me for a minute and let’s go back to when it all started being built. Back to when the walking path was a new thing. So many people at that time were disparaging about the idea. People would say The BeltLine with an eye roll, calling it, “a waste of time;” “a glorified sidewalk;” “another Atlanta boondoggle.”

Back then it was very similar to the rail discussion we’re having now. The cost to build was very high and the future value was a question mark — a projection – a vision — a dream really. The true worth of the BeltLine wasn’t readily apparent when you looked at a drawing or a study, attended a meeting, or even when you experienced your one neighborhood section of the path. Now that it’s taking shape, it’s easy to see that the Beltline was a good idea. It is a beautiful city asset and is the second most-visited attraction in Atlanta. It has triggered a boom in building and property values across the city core and has resulted in the creation of jobs, affordable housing, art exhibits, and gathering spaces.

Chad Polazzo is a life-long resident of intown Atlanta. He has a Master of Science in Organizational Behavior and has been a top ranked Realtor and investment consultant for two decades. He lives in Inman Park with his family.

It is loved by nearly everyone who lives nearby or has had the chance to experience it. But less than a decade ago, it wasn’t so. I used to run the newly named Eastside trail when it was dirt and crushed gravel and often, even on a beautiful Saturday, there was no one else there.

It wasn’t until enough sections were paved and landscaped and started to connect to each other that people started to use the trail to get to real destinations. Once it hit a critical mass the BeltLine became appreciated for what it offered. What it connected. Only then did any of us start to really understand all of the new spaces and lifestyle it helped create via a hidden pathway that cut through the core of our beloved city.

I must admit I felt a bit irritated when it got so crowded that running the BeltLine on a weekend felt like playing a game of frogger — dodging drunk tourists, dogs on long retractable leashes, people walking backwards to instaphoto their experiences, and e-bikers with Wi-Fi speakers. Who were all these people I suddenly had to share with?

And losing the gravel path has been a series of blows too. I loved having it all to myself, riding through what felt like countryside for miles without seeing another person. Hearing the rhythmic thump, thump, thump as I crossed the old historic wooden bridges, and feeling the solitude and chilly darkness as I traversed through muddy train tunnels. I didn’t want to lose that. And I mourn those losses.

The Atlanta BeltLine, shown here in Inman Park. (File Photo by Hannah Jones.)

But it’s not just about me. Alas, the BeltLine is not mine to enshrine in amber so that it remains the way I wish.

How many people will really travel the entire BeltLine loop once it is fully paved? The bulk of the micro mobility users and the walkers and runners will stick to shorter sections in their own neighborhoods. It’s 22 miles or so to do the full circle. So, if you’re renting a scooter, it would cost too much to ride it. If you own a scooter and average eight miles per hour it would take at least three hours. If you’re riding a bike you would need to dedicate a similar amount of time to ride the loop and that is if you don’t plan on stopping along the way.

Certainly, some will do it — but it will not be commuters, tourists, or people wanting to visit a brewery on the other side of town. It will be people cycling for leisure and exercise and people who run marathons. Without rail, those will be the only people who will do the full loop.

If you’re looking for a short, peaceful walk where you see grass and flowers and butterflies, those things will still be present after rail is in place on the BeltLine. Or you can walk on one of the spur trails that connect to the BeltLine all across the city. Trails like the Freedom Park Path which is practically empty most of the time and which would love your company.

And if you think to yourself, ‘Hey Chad, what about using micro wheeled shuttles instead of rail?’ My answer to that is: We have those already — they’re called cars and most of the paved sections of Atlanta are already dedicated to them. Twenty-five percent of downtown Atlanta is dedicated to parking them. Even more space is dedicated to driving them, buying them, cleaning them, repairing them, renting them… you get the point.

So if you claim that you want to fight crazy spending and government waste and environmental degradation and preserve tree canopy, how about speaking out and organizing against GADOT projects. Road boondoggles that go un-questioned and un-checked with unlimited spending — these are the projects that are the overwhelming majority of what we spend transportation dollars on. Fight that so we can open the way for alternative methods of transportation.

Dedicated rail is something that is a proven effective people mover and that can be made to integrate into the landscape. Rail technology is nothing like the 1900s trolley cars any more than your hybrid car is the same as a Ford Model T. The technology for new hybrid low-platform light rail is state-of-the-art and quite beautiful to behold when done right.

The BeltLine. (Photo by Emilia Weinrobe.)

So, for those of you who are mad/concerned/have questions/are confused about Beltline Rail — thank you for reading…. thank you for taking the time to stop and think about what it will be like once we have this light rail in place — I’m not talking about just a small section of “streetcar extension” for this first section on the Eastside trail but a full loop all the way around the BeltLine with spoke connections at MARTA heavy rail, Bus Rapid Transit connections, and a myriad of spur trails.

We’re talking about well-designed rail with neighbor input and oversight. Don’t think about the failed streetcar that doesn’t really go anywhere. Equating BeltLine rail to the Atlanta Streetcar project would be like thinking about the utility of building just a few miles of I-75/85 without the rest of it. Useless! I’d never drive on it because it couldn’t get me anywhere and I’d oppose it for sure!

But that’s not what this is. Like the small bits of BeltLine path that gradually were built one section at a time until they started to connect, this first rail section is just one piece of a big puzzle with a really beautiful picture at the end. Instead of being angry about losing a view or some of the informal crossing points, think about what it will be like once we can traverse the entire BeltLine on a bike, a scooter, on foot, on a unicycle, on a hoverboard, AND on a light rail car.

And here’s the thing: All these modes of transit will be able to be done at the same time even once rail is in place. The path is not going anywhere. Most of the BeltLine is already much less dense than the Eastside section AND rail will certainly take many of the walkers off the path because they’ll elect to ride. This will leave more room for walkers and riders.

Will it feel exactly the same as it does now? No. Will we sacrifice some things? Perhaps. But I’ve found that it’s easy to be upset about what you are losing when you don’t have a clear vision for what you are getting in return. As a realtor, I’ve notice that when someone sells a home and they want to hold out for an unreasonable price, it’s emotional.

It’s a for someone way to say, “I love my house a million dollars’ worth and other people should too! I’m mad at people for not seeing the value I see in my home.” When things are changing, and people focus on what they are losing it is only one piece of the whole. It’s not until we unpack the why we’re moving part and we look to the future to see the next place, the place we’re going to, that it becomes easier to let go of what we are leaving behind. Because — while the new place may not have the same things — there are new awesome things that come with that move.

It’s the same thing here with this BeltLine evolution. Our ~2-mile portion of the BeltLine is the most suitable for the first rail segment. It is the densest and most developed for mixed use. It’s the most connected to city infrastructure the city center. It extends an existing rail section we already have — the Atlanta Streetcar, which connects to our heavy rail system at Peachtree Center Station.

The view we see as we walk from Krog to Piedmont Park has evolved every year the BeltLine has been in place. It really feels like a brand-new city. And, yes, it will look and feel different once again when rail is in. It will require another adjustment.

Change is hard. And it’s much easier to fight and kill a visionary project than it is to build a world class game changing rail system in the center of an existing major city. So, let’s try fighting together to build this great thing and make it the best it can possibly be. Instead of fighting against the current and against the majority of this city who wants this to happen — let’s row in the same direction.

Will what we build be perfect? Of course not. But we must try because it’s the right thing for the city and we will all be better for it once it’s in and the dust has settled. It will be the thing that fundamentally changes Atlanta and the entire region by activating underdeveloped and unused industrial land that is suitable for density and adaptive re-use. It will connect a wide range of neighborhoods that have been historically separated by socioeconomic status and race. It will allow people to have affordable housing and transportation access to many more sections of the city to get to the jobs that we need to have done.

It will create something brand new that we don’t truly understand yet, but if you look at the big picture, the finished puzzle, it’s clear that it will be something great. I believe that it would be so much easier, better, quicker, and more fun if we worked on it together.


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