Atlanta Beltline report reveals project timeline, funding needs

After enduring years of litigation and a recession that wreaked havoc on its bottom line, the Atlanta Beltline’s board of directors approved a plan Wednesday that spells out how and when the group intends to build each portion of the redevelopment project.

The strategic plan — the first for Atlanta Beltline Inc., or ABI — comes amid speculation about whether the nonprofit’s massive undertaking can be completed by 2030, the deadline for when the tax allocation district that’s helping to fund the Beltline project expires.

The Beltline aims to transform dilapidated land into a 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit and spur economic development along the way. It is perhaps best known for its Eastside Trail, a popular running path that begins near Piedmont Park and winds through Intown Atlanta. But Beltline officials said they plan to broaden their focus in the next five years to tackle projects citywide.

That five-year to-do list includes breaking ground on the Beltline’s streetcar/light-rail program where the system will intersect with Atlanta’s streetcar project, beginning construction on a portion of the Westside Trail, adding mileage to the Eastside Trail, completing four parks and building the Southwest Beltline Connector Trail network.

ABI also intends to ramp up its affordable housing plan to meet its goal of 5,600 affordable housing units along the Beltline.

But the Beltline report reveals a grim reality about revenue.

The project is expected to cost about $4.3 billion now through 2030, according to the report, with 33 percent, or $1.5 billion, generated by its tax allocation district, also known as a TAD.

That’s a dramatic drop in TAD dollars from what was anticipated when the Beltline was created in 2005. Then, city officials expected the TAD would fund nearly 60 percent of the project, officials said.

That funding model took a devastating blow from two events: lawsuits challenging the use of property taxes for economic development, which tied up TAD revenue in court for the first few years of the project, and the Great Recession, which slowed development and resulted in less TAD money.

“The first five years turned out dramatically different than had been mapped out,” said Ethan Davidson, Beltline spokesman.

Paul Morris, who assumed the role of Beltline CEO earlier this year, said part of the challenge is identifying all the necessary revenue sources to build the Beltline. In addition to the TAD, the Beltline is funded by public and private donations and local and federal grants. To date, the Beltline has received more than $360 million in public and private funding.

Though ABI has mapped out its timeline for when the projects will be designed and built, not all of the required revenue has been secured. The strategic plan suggests funding sources for 80 percent of costs.

“From year one they had to ask themselves, how do we figure out remaining funding needs?” Morris said, noting the failed penny sales tax referendum in 2012 known as T-SPLOST was an effort to fill the gap.

The Beltline received a shot in the arm in recent months with an $18 million federal transportation grant to develop a 2.5-mile stretch of the southwest corridor. In addition, Atlanta was recently named a Federal Transit Administration grant designee, allowing it to apply directly for federal funds to help build out the Beltline’s transit portions.

Morris said the federal grant is an example of the project’s ability to secure revenue and noted the Beltline has generated more than $1 billion in private development. Despite the uncertainty of future funding, Morris maintained the Beltline will remain on schedule.

“Based on this track record we are confident that the Atlanta Beltline will be funded to its completion by 2030,” he said in a statement.

Mike Dobbins, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor of architecture, said he doubts the Beltline can complete its transit goals — namely building a streetcar system — by 2030. Dobbins said he is skeptical the funding can be secured and, even if so, isn’t likely to be profitable.

“It has so many technical flaws, cost issues and obstacles to overcome, and it doesn’t serve any existing or foreseeable ridership need,” he said. “I’m skeptical it would be built. There’s a chance the Northeast line, which (would serve) the more affluent part of city, could be built in 10 years, but the completion in 17 years is simply not likely.”

Joseph Hacker, a Georgia State University assistant professor of planning and economic development, said it’s not the Beltline’s fundraising model that has him worried — it’s land acquisition and right of way. Hacker recently completed his second tour of the loop and said he was struck by right of way issues the Beltline still must overcome.

“The problem is there are two sections of the Beltline that are seriously constrained by right of way issues,” he said. “If you have to tunnel or bridge something, who the hell knows what it is going to cost.”

Beltline officials said they have acquired between 60 and 70 percent of land and access.

David Sjoquist, a former board member of the Atlanta Regional Commission and a Georgia State economics professor, said the Beltline’s projections aren’t as far-fetched as some think. Noting city officials are considering unique funding models such as a public-private partnership to build out the transit system, Sjoquist didn’t count the Beltline’s predictions as pie in the sky.

“It’s not a pipe dream, but I think it’s a true challenge to raise that kind of money in 20 years,” he said, referring to the 17 years remaining before the TAD expires. “They have been raising money, but they really have to ramp it up. As more of it gets built, that becomes easier and easier … people will open up their checkbooks.”