A 22-mile loop of public transit, paths, parks, and new development on abandoned rail corridors ringing the city's core is closer to becoming a reality, thanks largely to the Sierra Club. But the original vision for the Atlanta BeltLine, conceived in 1999 as a master's thesis by Georgia Tech student Ryan Gravel, was almost derailed along the way.
After trying with limited success to promote his vision, Gravel teamed up with then-City Council President Cathy Woolard in 2004 to promote the plan in church basements and neighborhood association meetings. Sierra Club organizers began meeting with Gravel and Woolard in 2005, launching a campaign to solidify public support.
"We formed a coalition that ran the gamut from bicycle and transit advocates to African American clergy," says Atlanta Group Chair Dan Friedman. "We spoke to civic groups, neighborhood associations, anybody who would listen." In April 2005, Club volunteers and staff worked with Clark University students, pictured above, and others in a BeltLine Cleanup Day.
Meanwhile, Club organizers sought funding for BeltLine through the creation of a special Tax Allocation District. Activists fanned out door-to-door and tabled at street fairs and festivals like the Sweet Auburn Springfest in the neighborhood where Martin Luther King preached, promoting BeltLine and the tax district. The Club worked with Georgia Standup, a partnership for working families, to promote affordable housing along the BeltLine.
In late 2005, the Atlanta City Council and School Board voted for the special tax district. But as the December 31 deadline approached, the Fulton County Commissioners had not acted. "We flooded their office with phone calls like they'd never gotten before," says Club organizer Anna Cherry. On December 27, the commissioners voted for the tax district.
But then, Cherry says, the grassroots-driven vision of the BeltLine began evolving into a more developer-friendly project. When transit began taking a back seat to other large-scale development, Gravel and Woolard departed the team, leaving the Sierra Club in the role of transit watchdog.
To apply for federal matching funds, MARTA had to identify a "locally preferred alternative" as to the mode of transit and exact route BeltLine would take. The powerful Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce promoted Bus Rapid Transit as the "best" (i.e., cheapest) mode for the BeltLine, even though all along it had been presented to the public as rail-based transit. As well, two of the four routes MARTA proposed omitted a full quarter of the BeltLine loop.
The Sierra Club had built up a large network of grassroots activists in 2005. Now it turned out those people to speak up at MARTA's public meetings. Each of the four meetings was packed, and Club volunteers handed out stickers reading, "Keep the BeltLine on TRACKs!" For its part, MARTA handed out a technical report ranking Bus Rapid Transit as the best mode, with no mention of rail alternatives.
"The public was having none of it," Cherry says. "Comment after comment was in favor of rail-based transit and a full loop for BeltLine."
MARTA Board Chairman Ed Wall attended all four meetings, and each time asked for a show of hands favoring rail or bus transit. Nearly all raised their hands for rail, prompting Wall to announce to a supportive crowd, "Well, there's your locally preferred alternative!"
On January 8, 2007, the full MARTA board voted to recommend rail-based transit and a full loop around the city as the locally preferred alternative for BeltLine. "This could define inner-city Atlanta for the next century at least," says Friedman.
Learn more about the Atlanta BeltLine.
Photos used with permission.