By John Schaffner

About 250 people gathered Jan. 31 in northeast Atlanta along Piedmont Park, some with signs with a common message: Keep the BeltLine on track in Atlanta.

They were there to try to protect the BeltLine’s interest in a 4.3-mile stretch of unused rail corridor stretching from I-85 through Piedmont Park south to Decatur Avenue — an interest Atlanta BeltLine Inc. paid $66 million of bond money to purchase from Gwinnett developer Wayne Mason and his son last fall.

BeltLine supporters believe that the 22-mile loop of transit, parks and trails around the core of the city is threatened by a move by Amtrak and the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) to preserve that segment of the proposed BeltLine — currently still owned by the Norfolk Southern railroad — for future heavy or high-speed rail use.

They were there to object to GDOT’s attempt to get the U.S. Surface Transportation Board to stop Norfolk Southern from abandoning the rail line and to block Amtrak’s attempt to use its federal status to take over the corridor through condemnation.

Earlier, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin wrote an impassioned letter to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, seeking to get him to block the actions of GDOT and Amtrak. On Feb. 2, Atlanta officials, GDOT, MARTA, Amtrak and other agencies met at Lewis’ Atlanta offices and agreed to a 30-day timeout to work out a solution for how best to use that portion of the tracks.

City officials hope the BeltLine will attract pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods within walking distance of light-rail transit stops. They say the project, estimated to cost $2 billion to $3 billion, would create an area where people could work, live and play.

GDOT officials say the two projects could share the same corridor. But BeltLine officials say the attraction of the BeltLine would be destroyed, and its economic development engine disabled, by something as unpleasant as high-speed or heavy rail.

Amtrak has maintained that the BeltLine corridor is “the only feasible way” to route trains to a future multimodal transportation center at Five Points. A western alignment to downtown Atlanta would be too time-consuming and make its service uncompetitive, the intercity passenger rail carrier has said.

Franklin has said the GDOT and Amtrak moves endanger the BeltLine’s future. She said the state agency’s actions would put noisy heavy rail, such as Amtrak trains, in inappropriate environments like neighborhoods near Piedmont Park, “at the expense of the BeltLine.”