New trail spurs interest in ex-Atlanta rail route

Associated Press Modified: November 24, 2012 at 6:02 pm •  Published: November 24, 2012

ATLANTA (AP) — Since a new urban trail opened last month in an old rail corridor in Atlanta, it has drawn a steady stream of joggers, dog-walkers and cyclists to take in spectacular views of the skyline and neighborhoods once seen only by train. Hundreds of trees have been planted along the paved 14-foot-wide path, while artists have added works such as windmills made of bicycle parts and colorful murals on concrete overpasses.

The path, known as the Eastside Trail, is part of a $2.8 billion plan to transform a 22-mile railroad corridor that encircles Atlanta into a network of trails, parks, affordable homes and ultimately streetcar lines. The Atlanta BeltLine is an example of rails-to-trails projects going on around the country, including in New York and Chicago, that aim to make better use of old rail corridors by creating better-connected and more livable urban areas, providing alternatives to car travel and spurring economic development.

"I think it's transformational," Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said. "The new section is already overused in terms of the people. ... Now folks are demanding more and more."

Advocates say the BeltLine has great promise for a city that was founded as a railroad crossroads before the Civil War and later became a poster child for suburban sprawl and highway gridlock.

"The perception of Atlanta as 100 percent dependent on the car has really started to change," said Ed McMahon, senior residence fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington. He cited recent efforts to create bike paths and the planned BeltLine, which he said would be the "first bicycle beltway."

Atlanta's focus on light rail alongside the planned trails is also unique, he added.

More than 1,600 abandoned or unused rail corridors nationwide have been converted to trails, which totaled more than 19,000 miles in 2012.

One of the best-known examples is the High Line on Manhattan's West Side, where a 1.45-mile-long elevated rail structure has been transformed into an above-ground park drawing 2 million visitors a year. McMahon said it cost $150 million to build and has generated $2 billion in adjacent new construction. Chicago is undertaking The Bloomingdale Trail, a 3-mile-long elevated linear park and trail on a former rail line.

Such projects are "sparking real estate sales and energizing future development," McMahon said.

They're also changing the way people get around. In Minneapolis, he said, an abandoned rail yard was turned into a "bicycle freeway" with separate 10-foot-wide paths for travel to and from downtown.

It seems only fitting that Atlantans are reclaiming their rail corridors: The city was settled in 1837 as a railroad crossroads called Terminus. Rail lines were destroyed by Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman's forces during the Civil War, but were quickly rebuilt after the war.

Atlanta BeltLine Inc., a nonprofit that is an offshoot of the city's economic development authority, works with a myriad of groups and agencies. Its roughly $20-million-plus budget includes new tax revenue above 2005 levels from a BeltLine corridor tax district — expected to generate $1.7 billion over 25 years — and government funds and private donations.

In addition to the 2.25-mile-long Eastside Trail, the group has opened three other parks, a skate park and two trails; helped create 120 affordable homes; secured land for future streetcar lines; and invested more than $1.3 million in public art.

However, the vision of light rail seems farther off after area voters this year rejected a transportation referendum that included $600 million for transit projects such as the BeltLine.

The ABI has gotten some public-relations black eyes, too. The board overseeing the project voted in August to oust its president and CEO after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that he charged taxpayers for a wedding gift, a dry cleaning bill, a parking ticket and other items. Critics also voiced concern about spending for elaborate staff retreats, stays at pricey hotels and meals at expensive restaurants for project employees.

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