OPINION: Atlanta Councilwoman sees logic, seeks a pause on Beltline rail

The Atlanta Beltline Eastside trail, south of Ponce de Leon, crossing over North Avenue. AJC file photo

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

The Atlanta Beltline Eastside trail, south of Ponce de Leon, crossing over North Avenue. AJC file photo

Perhaps reality is — finally — settling in on the city of Atlanta when it comes to the pipedream of running streetcars along the Beltline.

On Tuesday, Councilwoman Marci Collier Overstreet expressed an opinion that these days is sort of brave around City Hall: Maybe now is not the time to dump $230 million in precious funds to expand the downtown streetcar 2-plus miles to Ponce City Market.

Overstreet released a reasoned statement with a cold, hard view of facts — that there are lots of transit needs but not nearly enough money to cover them.

“I agree with Mayor Dickens that we need a robust, substantive, and public debate about putting rail on the Beltline, expanding the downtown streetcar and, most importantly, how to spend our limited transportation dollars,” Overstreet wrote.

She said the city should first finish the 22-loop that will be the Beltline. That could be around 2030. “Then, we can evaluate what kind of transit, if any, should go on the Beltline. Rail may be an option but I’ve not seen a clear path forward, with many unanswered questions remaining.”

Amir Farokhi, the former chair of the council’s Transportation Committee and whose district would have streetcar extension, disagrees.

“It takes courage to do big things,” he said. “It’s easy to poke holes in ambitious projects. But we have an obligation to deliver what was promised to voters: To build transit connectivity that is decades overdue. If the Beltline is to be inclusive, especially for access to jobs, it needs transit.”

I said earlier that Overstreet is showing some courage because the Beltline Rail supporters are an impassioned, verbose bunch who are adept at using moral authority to foist what could be a boondoggle on the population.

Atlanta City Councilwoman Marci Collier Overstreet speaks at a news conference in 2021. AJC file photo: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

One of the first things you see on the Beltline Rail Now! website is the slogan, “Build Beltline rail for a more equitable Atlanta.”

“Equity” is a hot buzzword these days. The rail supporters are largely young-to-middle age progressive white guys hooked on the idea that a circular 22-mile, multi-billion-dollar track would help “fight displacement, promote affordable housing, and provide greater benefits to ALL of our city’s residents.”

Overstreet, a Black woman who represents Southwest Atlanta, is not afraid to say, I see your Equity and raise it with mine.

“Without a doubt, I have equity concerns,” she wrote. “In the past, my district and others, especially south of I-20 have had transportation promises and commitments broken — repeatedly. The people in our city must have their voices heard so that we can build equitable transit in our communities.”

“Our public transportation dollars must reflect the priorities of the entire city, especially those disadvantaged neighborhoods and corridors, like Campbellton Connector,” she continued, “which are necessary to help and expand options for those that rely on public transit to move around.”

Interestingly, the first construction of the streetcar would be on the Eastside Beltline, one of Atlanta’s toniest areas. Even the guy who’s firm redeveloped Ponce City Market, and who could benefit from the truncated line, does not favor the plan.

“In short, putting rail on the Beltline is a solution to a problem that does not exist,” developer Matt Bronfman, CEO of Jamestown, wrote in the AJC two months ago.

I called Councilman Byron Amos, who heads the Transportation Committee. He sounded much like Overstreet.

A crowd waits for the start of the Bandaloop dancers' performance on the Atlanta Beltline on Sunday, October 3, 2021. (Photo: Steve Schaefer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

“That’s a large amount of money to spend on that location,” Amos said of the planned route. “Especially when there are greater needs.”

The fact that a key business leader, followed by a councilwoman who one day can envision herself in the mayoral chambers, are now publicly expressing skepticism on the streetcar plan shows a break in the collective silence on the matter.

For months, city officials and business leaders have whispered reservations about the spending $230 million for a short streetcar jaunt. But they didn’t want to take flak from the streetcar folks or get crossways with Mayor Andre Dickens, who had publicly expressed his support.

The MARTA board last year pushed the Eastside extension forward but held their noses when doing so. Largely, they said it was not the best use of limited funds but the mayor wanted it, and they reasoned, it’s the city’s money.

By that, I mean the money came from a 2016 referendum to raise a half-penny to the sale tax to complete dozens of improvements to the transit system. More than 70% Atlanta voters passed the measure.

Rail proponents frequently argue that Atlanta’s voters, with that vote, have spoken loudly on the subject.

In 2016 then-MARTA CEO Keith Parker wrote on Op-ed to rally voters on the initiative.

But he didn’t mention Beltline rail until the seventh paragraph. It came after he listed improvements to “our midday, night and weekend service,” as well as transit centers near Greenbriar Mall and Moores Mill, “arterial rapid transit routes, including Campbellton Road-Greenbriar Mall-Oakland City and Peachtree Street-Five Points-Brookhaven.”

Beltline rail was just one ingredient in the stew.

Dickens seems like he’s wavered on his blind support, telling me in November, “I’m all for a healthy dialogue about the future of Beltline transit.”

Maybe he’s seeing the light.

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