Atlanta Beltline attracts support, scrutiny

When regional leaders agreed upon a thick list of transportation projects to put before voters next year, Atlanta’s iconic Beltline project came out as a big winner.

But will that project help or hinder the overall campaign? Voters in 10 counties are being asked to approve a 1-cent sales to raise $6.14 billion for regional transportation projects aimed at easing congestion across metro Atlanta.

The fate of the entire transportation project could hinge on whether voters in the 10-county metro region think the Beltine project is key to easing congestion or pork for city residents.

Against a backdrop of a soured economy and slumping job market, 2.3 million registered voters in Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties will have a chance to cast an up or down vote. Those voters will have to be convinced the Beltline project will help commuters and serve as an engine of economic redevelopment that will benefit in-town residents and suburbanites alike. Beltline-related discord has already bubbled to the surface between Atlanta and its closest neighbors. North Fulton mayors have gone on the record saying the Beltline is not a regional project, a criticism that elicited a sharp rebuke from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.

Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos argues that the Beltline is not a regional transportation solution. The Beltine, a $2.8 billion project that includes parks and walking trails and plans for light rail and streetcars, is slated to receive about half of Atlanta’s transit funds -- $289 million -- if voters approve the tax.

“We know the region needs to do something about transit,” she said. “But is this the right list?”

The perception of the Beltline as a worthwhile but local project lingers among those outside the city.

“However useful a project it is for Atlanta, it should not be paid for using funds intended for regional projects,” Matthew Quinn, editor of the Johns Creek Herald, wrote in an editorial.

The referendum list will need overwhelming support in Atlanta and inside the Perimeter, because backers of the projects will likely have a tougher time mustering votes in the suburbs.

The one-penny transportation tax “needs to happen,” said Emory Morsberger, who has advocated for public transit for a decade and counts the Beltline’s inclusion on the list as a positive. “We don’t get another chance. If we’ve got an exciting, vibrant core, that spreads to the outskirts.”

Beltline boosters say they have a new tool that can help earn the support of hundreds of thousands of commuters.

The penny sales tax would fund two spokes of streetcar lines stretching east and west into Midtown and downtown Atlanta. They would connect the job hubs of Coca-Cola, AT&T and Georgia-Pacific with the outer flanks of the Beltline in the Historic Fourth Ward to the east and and Maddox Park in the Bankhead area to the west. The tax-funded projects would connect with MARTA at North Avenue or 10th Street, the Peachtree Center and at a new MARTA station on Joseph E. Boone Boulevard.

“We provide the connective tissue to MARTA’s existing skeletal structure,” said Brian Leary, president of Atlanta Beltline Inc., which oversees the project.

The Beltline has been pushed as an economic development measure that would give the region an edge in competition with other cities -- Dallas, Denver, Portland, Charlotte and others — for jobs and creative professionals.

Today, the Beltline has properties around the city and equally broad goals. It includes parks, walking trails -- 3.5 miles of which have already been completed — housing units and plans for light rail and streetcars. It plans to turn Bellwood Quarry into a park and emergency water source for Atlanta.

Those ambitious, evolving plans have attracted a cadre of supporters: 1,500 volunteers and a list of about 20,000 people who sign up for communications through Twitter, Facebook or mail.

When Terry Bond moved from the Lawrenceville area to Midtown a few months ago, signing up to volunteer with the Beltline was one of the first things he did. The retired computer consultant has lived in San Francisco and Boston, and wanted to help give mass transit a boost in the region.

“The Beltline has the impetus, it has the people behind it -- it’s hard to look at it and say it’s no good,” Bond said. “It’s the only thing we’ve got that’s moving,” he said.

The project attracts its share of critics.

George Pilkington, a transportation engineer and senior’s advocate who lives on the west side of Atlanta, said he doesn’t want anything to do with the Beltline. He said the project will create huge profits for private developers who own nearby property and want taxpayers to help fund the cost of improvements.

“I’m against the Beltline, and I encourage all my friends to oppose it as well,” Pilkington said.

From the beginning, Atlanta’s strategy to build the Beltline involved building a variety of parks to stoke grassroots support before the more difficult work of installing transit lines in the form of light rail and streetcars. The Beltline has opened a skateboarding park, a Little League baseball diamond on top of a former landfill and a playground on a hill in the Historic Fourth Ward.

The big bet, Leary said, was that residents would eventually ask for more of the Beltline’s pieces to be assembled. The hardest work lies ahead.

“Transit, by everybody’s estimation, is the most expensive, most technically complex, and most difficult to deliver,” Leary said. “Parks and trails were absolutely part of our plan to give people parts of the Atlanta Beltline.”

During negotiations among regional leaders, the Beltline became a favorite target for outer counties looking to poach money for projects.

“The tallest tree is the first to be cut,” Leary said. “We had a very big presence and a brand. What other project on the list has more than 1,500 volunteers working for it every year”

Regardless of whether the one-cent tax passes, the goal is to substantially complete the outer, 22-mile Beltline corridor in a decade.

“People ask, ‘Well, what happens if (the one-cent tax) doesn’t pass?” he said. “We go back to Plan A.”

Atlanta Beltline Inc. ended the 2010 fiscal year with about $11.9 million in cash on hand, down from $25.2 million at the beginning of the year after it paid for numerous projects.

The project has raised $23 million from the federal government and $37 million from private sources including philanthropic foundations.

“The funding is appropriate,” Reed said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Our projects are actually going to be built. We have the resources that are necessary to ensure that they are completed.”

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