The advocacy group BeltLine Rail Now has issued a proposal it says would complete the loop’s transit element decades sooner than the current 2050 target date. But MARTA calls the idea an unrealistic “wish list” that would harm other transit projects.

The disagreement comes amid a flurry of political activity regarding funding and completion of the Atlanta BeltLine, including a push for a commercial tax increase to pay for its trail element, which BeltLine Rail Now also opposes, and concerns about affordable housing goals and gentrification.

A before-and-after illustration of the Atlanta BeltLine’s proposed light-rail transit corridor, in an Atlanta Development Authority image reproduced in BeltLine Rail Now’s “white paper” on funding the project.

The BeltLine is a proposed 22-mile system of multiuse trails and an accompanying light-rail mass transit line that would encircle intown Atlanta, largely using old railroad corridors. The transit has yet to be built, while several segments of the trail have already opened, including the Northside Trail in Buckhead’s Tanyard Creek and Atlanta Memorial parks area. Planning for the Northeast Trail segment into southeastern Buckhead is underway by Atlanta BeltLine Inc.

The roughly $2.5 billion plan for BeltLine transit includes funding from the “More MARTA” half-penny sales tax as well as many other sources, some of them to be determined. BeltLine Rail Now emerged in 2018 amid concerns that MARTA was putting the transit element on the back-burner or considering replacing the light rail with buses. The group’s co-founder is Ryan Gravel, who conceived of the BeltLine and several years ago resigned a board position at Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, ABI’s nonprofit funding arm, in disagreement with its work on equity and affordability.

With renewed talk of funding the trail, BeltLine Rail Now on Jan. 28 issued a “white paper” saying that the transit can and must be funded as well and both elements created together.

“Current More MARTA plans target completion of BeltLine rail for 2050, and we are here to remind our mayor and city council that the BeltLine is a visionary equity project and not simply a concrete path,” said Matthew Rao, co-chair of BeltLine Rail Now, in a press release. “Without the density and mobility that transit allows, there can be no significant affordable housing. And without transit built in from the beginning, displacement of long-time residents is accelerating. The promotion of a tax-subsidized trail without BeltLine rail has worsened problems like these.”

The proposal says the transit could be completed by 2030 using a mix of federal funding, special assessment districts, sales taxes and tax increment financing.

“We have looked at other cities’ successes, and illustrate how Atlanta can do the same,” says the group on its website. “Yet the argument is not about funding scarcity. It is about our leaders’ political will. We cannot settle for a park and trail system that gives a bonanza to developers while sidelining equity, affordability and sustainability.”

MARTA said in a written statement that it is fully aware of how to fund transit projects.

“MARTA wholeheartedly agrees with Beltline Rail Now … that additional funding sources are necessary in order to expand the MARTA system and provide better connectivity across the city and region,” the transit agency said. “… That said, the BRN white paper is less a blueprint for funding and more a wish list.”

Among the proposal’s problems, MARTA said, are that it “glosses over steep legislative and policy hurdles” in getting other funding and that it “conflates financing and funding, a common but serious mistake.” MARTA said the proposal also would require eliminating transit projects planned for Campbellton Road in southwest Atlanta and the Clifton Corridor light rail between Buckhead’s Lindbergh Center Station and the Emory University area.

Triggering the rail discussion is ABI seeking a 2-mill commercial tax increase in an effort to complete the trail portion of the loop. Legislation to create a Special Service District (SSD) within the Atlanta BeltLine Planning Area was introduced at an Atlanta City Council meeting on Jan. 19.

Without additional funding, Atlanta BeltLine Inc. officials contend, the trail corridor would not be completed before a tax allocation district (TAD) expires in 2030. The TAD — which freezes property valuations for tax purposes and allows increased tax revenue to pay off redevelopment costs — will generate at least $1 billion less than originally projected, they say. The estimated cost to design and construct the remaining trail corridor is $350 million.

An SSD is a geographic district created through legislation that levies additional property taxes to provide local government services. In the case of the BeltLine, commercial and multi-family property owners within the Atlanta BeltLine Planning Area — which includes the half-mile on either side of the corridor — would see an estimated 2-mill increase, or two-tenths of a penny per dollar in the assessed value of each property. Funds go towards trail acquisition, design, and construction.

Residents living in single-family homes would not be subject to the increase.

City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, who represents Buckhead’s District 8, said the SSD’s political prospects remain good. “I think there’s a lot of support to get the BeltLine done and I think you’ll see that legislation pass,” he said.

The trail isn’t the only BeltLine goal affected by lower-than-expected funds. ABI and the Partnership are well behind on a goal of creating or preserving 5,600 units of affordable housing in the loop’s corridor by 2030.

ABI said in a press release that on Dec. 28, it acquired two parcels of land — a former ATM site and a wooded lot — at 579 Garson Drive, just off Piedmont Road, with the intent of using it for a trail and affordable housing through a future public process. The purchase was made from Wells Fargo & Company for what ABI said was the below-market price of $900,000, a deal the financial services company intended as a partial donation.

The approximate area of two parcels at 579 Garson Drive in Buckhead recently acquired by the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership for possible development into a trail and affordable housing. (Google Maps)

“The purchase of the Garson property is a huge step for the Atlanta BeltLine project in diversifying land acquisitions to bring greater affordability to neighborhoods all around the BeltLine, including Buckhead,” said Clyde Higgs, the CEO of ABI, in the release. “We are very grateful to Wells Fargo for their support, which will enable ABI to do more to ensure equity around the 22-mile loop.”

BeltLine Rail Now said in a press release that it opposes the SSD due to lack of transit funding.

“It is now undeniable that a ‘trail only’ approach is a startling accelerant of gentrification, and does next to nothing to address Atlanta’s growing equity and mobility problems,” said the BeltLine Rail Now release. “Further, 5,300 units of affordable housing over 25 years spread over a 22-mile corridor is a very low bar. We need tens of thousands of affordable housing units — with access to mass transit at the time they become available.”