By John Schaffner

The Atlanta City Council unanimously approved a resolution March 23 authorizing the administration to execute a framework agreement involving the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT), Amtrak and other parties regarding potential use of the BeltLine right of way for high-speed rail service.

The agreement essentially eliminates high-speed rail service from the northeast corridor rail route that passes through Piedmont Park. The city last year paid more than $60 million to secure that corridor from Gwinnett developer Wayne Mason and his family.

The city did not purchase the right to use the Norfolk Southern rail line that cuts through the 4.5 miles of property, and GDOT and Amtrak recently proposed using that line for high-speed commuter traffic. That service would connect existing passenger rail service to a proposed multimodal transportation hub downtown.

The City Council agreement does not create any financial obligation for the city.

All parties now agree that the western trunk line, modified to increase passenger rail capacity, is a viable alternative to the northeastern corridor (Decatur Belt) for commuter, intercity and high-speed rail service. The parties will continue work on supplemental studies.

Crucial studies are needed regarding options to alleviate freight congestion. One possibility is a western bypass for freight trains to keep them out of downtown Atlanta.

In their action, the council members also called for the protection of properties abutting the western trunk line from eminent domain, including properties along Marietta Street, an area that has experienced a resurgence in residential growth.

City Council member and mayoral candidate Mary Norwood of Buckhead made the amendment calling for such protections.

“Any analyses of the western bypass should include the protection of all neighborhoods impacted by the multimodal project,” council President Lisa Borders said. “If this resolution was not adopted, GDOT could have automatically moved forward with condemnation of some of those properties. I think our amendment is sound, and we look forward to having all parties back at the table.”

“The Atlanta BeltLine has always received the support from the Atlanta City Council, but the legislation voted on also discussed the creation of the multimodal passenger terminal by expanding existing railroad right of way over private property,” said Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr., who represents the Marietta Street corridor. “There are those of us that do not take this expansion lightly.”

Earlier, Norfolk Southern on behalf of the city and the Atlanta Development Authority sought the abandonment of the remaining corridor easement along the BeltLine from the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB). In early January, GDOT and Amtrak intervened to challenge the abandonment process and claimed they needed that corridor for future rail transportation.

Also in January, the City Council’s Community Development and Human Resources Committee passed a resolution supporting the use of the Decatur Belt exclusively for BeltLine purposes and calling for GDOT and Amtrak to withdraw their opposition before the STB.

On Feb. 2, the parties directly involved in the STB abandonment proceedings agreed to evaluate for 30 days the feasibility of the BeltLine’s co-existing with commuter, intercity and high-speed rail on the Decatur Belt and whether viable routing alternatives were available.

Amtrak indicated it would withdraw its opposition before the federal agency if GDOT and the city executed the framework agreement by the STB’s March 23 filing deadline.

The BeltLine is a 20-year project that is proposed to add 22 miles of light rail around the city core to improve Atlanta’s transportation infrastructure by connecting neighborhoods via green space, sidewalks, streetscapes and transportation.

In addition to the recent controversy regarding the northeast rail line, a challenge to the completion of the loop is in the northern sector, which cuts through south Buckhead. There, the transportation modes and trails are planned to run parallel to the CSX freight line and on CSX right of way, but CSX has not indicated its approval of such a plan.