Atlanta BeltLine’s proposed rail is at a crossroads

Is Atlanta BeltLine rail transit the path toward a more functional, equitable city—or another expensive boondoggle waiting to happen? Weighing both sides of a very passionate debate.

Atlanta BeltLine rail transit controversy
Rail proponent Matthew Rao visits the Eastside trail.

Photograph by Audra Melton

The sun breaks on a chilly October morning over Dunkin’ Donuts and MARTA’s headquarters, slowly illuminating from gray to cloud-dotted blue the glass ceiling of a vast office tower atrium at the Lindbergh mixed-use district—or what developers have rechristened “Uptown Atlanta.” It’s the annual State of the BeltLine address, and it smells like cappuccino. Seated in the atrium are about 250 city bureaucrats, nattily dressed real estate executives, architects, engineers, state reps, business industry bigwigs, and media. Plus at least a couple people who think building anything resembling a train on the Atlanta BeltLine is pretty much the dumbest idea of all time.

That latter category does not include Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens. Or the executive who’s guiding the BeltLine through a period of unprecedented growth, as MARTA formulates plans to start building an extension of the controversial Atlanta Streetcar, called Streetcar East, along the BeltLine’s most popular section next year. This much is made very clear to the audience.

“[The BeltLine is] connecting us to each other, to nature, and hopefully to job opportunities that may one day reduce our city’s income gap,” says Dickens, clad in a dapper gray suit. “The promise of transit will serve to integrate with and not discard what Atlantans have already fallen in love with on the BeltLine.” A little while later, Clyde Higgs, the BeltLine’s CEO and president of five years, calls transit “the DNA of the Atlanta BeltLine” and a partial solution to the city’s Achilles’-heel car traffic. Then Higgs urges the room to think macro, long-term. “We’re going to add another almost 2 million people [to the metro] in the next 25 years,” says Higgs, citing Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) projections. “What are we going to do? We have to give people options for getting around the city. This [BeltLine transit proposal] isn’t necessarily for you . . . it’s really for our grandkids, our great-grandkids.”

The tone shifts, however, when another powerful, suited man has his turn with the mic. He isn’t thinking about hypothetical Atlanta progeny.

Ambrish Baisiwala is the well-traveled CEO and chairman of Portman Holdings, a multinational developer that has shaped much of downtown Atlanta’s skyline and, in recent years, has been acquiring BeltLine-adjacent parcels like Pac-Man does power pellets. Over the past six decades, Baisiwala says, his company has completed 23 buildings that incorporate transit or stand within whistling distance of stations. They know transit, and they know thriving cities need it, he says. Then comes a laundry list of reasons why, per Baisiwala, light-rail vehicles on the BeltLine’s Eastside Trail aren’t the best use of resources: Just a fraction of metro Atlanta’s office space is located on the BeltLine today; transit ridership is stagnant or “falling off a cliff” in American cities; and the BeltLine’s trail-meets-trains vision, famously cooked up by Georgia Tech grad student Ryan Gravel, came in 1999, or “eight years before the iPhone was invented,” Baisiwala says, hinting at a dated technology.

“We need a transit solution for all of Atlanta,” says Baisiwala in a follow-up interview. “The extension of the [downtown] streetcar on the BeltLine does not address the transit issues, will be very challenging to complete, and will take decades—all of this assuming the funding could be procured.”

Dickens, Higgs, and Baisiwala are three key voices in what’s become a cacophonous debate pitting sign-waving grassroots activists against heads of multibillion-dollar development firms. Neighbor against neighbor. Professor against hipster. Expert lobbyists against seasoned city planners. And, as of last fall, the small organization founded by Gravel and former Atlanta City Council president Cathy Woolard in 2018, BeltLine Rail Now, against a recently formed opposition group, Better Atlanta Transit, with other well-known names attached.

As nobody knows exactly what the first section of BeltLine light rail might entail, it’s as if both factions are inhabiting alternate realities of the same hypothetical city, each perceiving the other’s vision as ridiculous, if not dangerous. In interviews, supporters from each side have accused the other of outright lying or dirty, bullying politics. Some call a train-like vehicle whirring (or clanging, depending on which reality you inhabit) down the BeltLine a cause for leaving Atlanta entirely; others, the only way they’ll be able to stay in the city as the realities of aging set in.

Amidst a whirlwind of contradicting statements, there could be just three points on which both parties tend to agree: 1. In general, more transit in the city is good. 2. The BeltLine is such a success that it’s already one of the most consequential projects ever built in Atlanta—if not any modern American city—like a permanent Centennial Olympic Games. 3. Adding this first section of transit, which MARTA estimates will cost at least $230 million, will be expensive as hell.

Regular attendees of the annual BeltLine breakfast say transit was barely mentioned in years past, but it was the 2023 meeting’s central theme, which speaks to the topic’s timeliness and weight. Both sides expect the great rail debate to intensify as specific proposals finally arrive this year, proving that Atlanta might still be too busy to hate, but it has plenty of time to argue, loudly.

• • •

Gravel, the BeltLine visionary and Chamblee native, is tired of answering the same questions over the past 20 years about the transit greenway idea outlined in his master’s thesis that, to date, has helped birth $9 billion in private investment, per Atlanta BeltLine, Inc.’s estimates. But on an autumn afternoon, Gravel finds himself recampaigning for the prospects of transit that his now-folkloric 1999 dissertation extolled as a key ingredient of the BeltLine’s eventual success. During a college year studying abroad in Paris, as the tale goes, Gravel was inspired by the city’s robust public transit system. That influenced his vision for transforming a circle of abandoned rail lines around his hometown. Today, he points to unexpected places he feels are way ahead of Atlanta in adopting alternative transportation. “These transit greenways are built all over the world—there’s one in Charlotte,” Gravel laughs. “It’s not even fancy. This is not rocket science.”

These days, metro Atlanta is perennially ranked among America’s fastest-growing regions. It packed in another 65,000 people across 11 counties in 2022, and between 2015 and 2050, it’s expected to see a boost equivalent to the population of metro Denver, according to ARC estimates. Given that influx, Gravel sounds incredulous in noting that no “significant” investment in transit has been made since MARTA’s North Springs and Sandy Springs stations opened in 2000. His assessment seems like a deliberate diss, as it fails to acknowledge the streetcar’s downtown loop, which debuted woefully behind schedule, with a price tag of $98 million (ballooned from a predicted $69 million) in 2014. These days, the underpatronized streetcar is the favorite bogeyman of BeltLine rail’s opposition. It’s proof, they posit, that a light-rail transit system on the Eastside Trail will inevitably devolve into a boondoggle.

“The streetcar is inefficient, it’s ugly, it’s just extremely clunky,” says Jennifer Bentson Hubert, a BeltLine rail opponent who works in Georgia Tech administration and lives in Old Fourth Ward, a half mile from the current 2.7-mile streetcar loop but directly on the proposed new route.

Rail supporters often point to the fact that, in 2016, 71 percent of Atlanta voters supported More MARTA, a 40-year program to fund new rail, stations, streetcar extensions, and bus routes with a half-penny sales tax increase. But in early 2023, faced with rising costs and inflation, MARTA slashed the original list of projects to be built with an anticipated $2.7 billion in tax revenue down to seven, including the planned Eastside Trail rail extension. That’s not, rail opponents say, what taxpayers voted for.

MARTA took over streetcar operations from the city in 2018, after state regulators threatened to shut the system down in light of problems with accident investigations, inadequate staffing, and other issues. According to MARTA ridership data, the downtown streetcar in 2022 saw an average of about 426 trips taken per day (at $1 apiece, or $3 for a day pass). That’s roughly half the number of daily riders tallied in prepandemic 2019. With no dedicated right-of-way, the streetcar is frequently stuck in traffic or rendered immobile by cars illegally parked in its lanes. Gravel calls the streetcar’s current stations “pitiful” and notes that transit on the Eastside Trail would be a different form of light rail that doesn’t share lanes with cars. “In any conversation I’ve ever been part of, over the past 20 years, [the Atlanta streetcar] is not what people want or expect on the BeltLine,” says Gravel. “They expect a much higher grade and quality.”

Early renderings released by MARTA show a replica version of the streetcar rolling up and down the Eastside Trail, powered by overhead wires. But, like virtually all aspects of the project, that’s subject to change. MARTA and the City of Atlanta hope extending the current streetcar loop by two miles to a jobs hub and bona fide tourist attraction like Ponce City Market, with five new stations in between, will greatly boost ridership; detractors argue that there’s no data to back up that theory. And whether Ponce City Market’s ownership actually wants trains arriving at its doorstep is a different story, as we’ll see shortly.

When Gravel worked as an architect for BeltLine designers Perkins & Will, more than a decade ago, the firm came up with a rail vision he calls a “really rich, integrated approach,” with stations, stairs, walls, and guideways (or the paths and rails on which trains travel) seamlessly woven next to the paved BeltLine. That’s a stark contrast with renderings recently distributed by Better Atlanta Transit, the opposition alliance, depicting the rail corridor as a concrete-encased “heat island” with walls jammed between BeltLine patrons and trains.

Rail opponents question why the first BeltLine rail section couldn’t be built somewhere else, where public transit is more needed and housing less dense, avoiding an association with the current streetcar and its bad reputation. “I’ve watched the BeltLine grow, mature, and really knit together a lot of things,” says retired engineer Guy Griswold, HOA president for the BeltLine-adjacent Highland Park Townhome Association in Old Fourth Ward. Griswold, who owns a four-story townhome with a wraparound deck overlooking the trail, asks, “Why would you want to marry arguably the most successful thing in Atlanta, the BeltLine, with the biggest failure, the streetcar?”

Shaun Green, the BeltLine’s principal engineer, says the logic boils down to avoiding “orphaned segments” of light rail. “There’s going to have to be expansion from something that already exists,” says Green. “So us putting in a segment of rail on the southwest quadrant of the BeltLine that doesn’t have a connection to the rest of the streetcar system—that’s just not something we’re going to get federal funds for. And it just doesn’t make sense from a transit planning perspective.”

But can trains coexist with a multipurpose path that attracts 2 million visitors per year and spills over with patrons on sunny weekends? And if so, what might that look like?

• • •

Five years after its founding, the driving grassroots force behind the prorail movement is BeltLine Rail Now, or BRN. The nonprofit has a four-person board, about 2,700 newsletter subscribers, a devout millennial following, and, as of last fall, a campaign selling $8 yard signs to help raise funding. The most visible, audible BRN leader is cochair Matthew Rao. He’s a studious-looking Georgia Tech alum who runs an interior design architecture firm when he’s not, say, leading BRN marches in neighborhood parades or politely offloading stacks of BRN brochures into the hands of Atlanta City Council members and Collie Greenwood, MARTA CEO and general manager, as Rao was doing after the BeltLine breakfast summit.

Despite assertions from rail opponents that BRN could be secretly funded by companies in the light-rail industry, such as Siemens, Rao insists his organization has taken no money from corporations and hasn’t tallied more than $525 from a single private donation. Asked why he’s so committed to the cause, Rao says, with impassioned eyes, that the BeltLine is “the most transformational urban design project in the United States,” and that advocacy and public education are crucial parts of seeing the “entire vision” come to fruition.

“Have you ever been on the architectural boat tour in Chicago? We don’t have the natural geography to do that here,” says Rao. “But we can do the Atlanta BeltLine, and we can bring what’s on the Eastside Trail in unique ways all around the rest of the 22 miles if we provide the access.”

Believers like Rao contend that accessible, relatively cheap connectivity would bring office, residential, and commercial development to other parts of the city, creating opportunities for underserved neighborhoods on par with the Eastside Trail, which opened 11 years ago and has transformed formerly barren sections of Old Fourth Ward.

Atlanta BeltLine rail transit controversy
Matthew Rao

Photograph by Audra Melton

On its face, MARTA ridership data doesn’t look too encouraging from a transit demand standpoint. Combined rail and streetcar rides in 2019 accounted for nearly 62 million trips on MARTA. While ridership is trending up, the tally of trips in 2022—about 28.4 million—didn’t reach half the number of three years before. Public transit use has dipped virtually everywhere since the pandemic, but the New York Times reported in November 2023 that only four American cities have seen steeper drops in daily transit commutes than Atlanta’s 82 percent decrease between the autumns of 2019 and 2022.

Still, it’s tough to overstate how anomalous and magnetic the Eastside Trail can be, in every respect. New City Properties president Jim Irwin helped lead the development of Ponce City Market and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars building five new BeltLine-linked towers nearby, with much more in the pipeline. Irwin has leased 300,000 square feet of one new office tower to digital-marketing behemoth Mailchimp, and he says a third of that company’s employees plan to commute to work on the BeltLine. Shuttles running between Ponce City Market and the North Avenue MARTA station have consistently been packed, indicating strong rail use, Irwin says. But another prominent developer, Matt Bronfman, CEO of Ponce City Market owner Jamestown, coauthored an AJC editorial arguing against BeltLine transit, calling it an “expensive and risky venture” that would consume resources needed elsewhere.

Irwin supports transit—so long as the quality is excellent—and he designed the wide-open, welcoming plazas at Mailchimp’s future headquarters with train arrivals in mind. “[The BeltLine] is not just fun, not just a weekend activity . . . we are at the point in our city where people are actually using this five, six, seven days a week,” Irwin said at the BeltLine meeting. “The excitement and energy around transit is palpable.”

But rail opponents wonder if those trips couldn’t be made in more innovative, current, and flexible ways. Namely, by using driverless (autonomous) vehicles and/or what’s collectively referred to as “micromobility,” including bicycles, scooters, skateboards, in-line skates, and even futuristic-looking electric unicycles. Chris Dyrda, a retired engineer who’s worked professionally with mass transit programs, says autonomous bus technology has advanced to the point of making the vehicles feasible on the BeltLine for Atlantans who are unable to pedal for miles or to afford a $300 scooter. “Autonomous buses are cheaper, scalable, efficient, and less disruptive to businesses, the environment, and residences,” says Dyrda, who lives in Old Fourth Ward. “[They’re] coming to Truist Park and the airport. Why not the BeltLine?” (The Truist Park shuttle, known as the Cumberland Hopper, is an eight-month pilot program currently testing autonomous, eight-seat buses along pedestrian trails around Cobb Galleria and the Battery Atlanta.)

Atlanta BeltLine rail transit controversy
Guy Griswold on the deck of his townhome, which overlooks the BeltLine

Photograph by Audra Melton

Griswold, the HOA president, says autonomous vehicles would provide transit planners with an off-ramp. He decries the idea of Eastside Trail transit, but adds: “If you’re going to do it, let’s put another 14- or 16-foot-wide ribbon of asphalt or concrete out there, and then run these autonomous vehicles that are proven technology. If ridership never materializes, what are you left with? You’re left with a parallel path that you can separate wheeled vehicles from walkers and runners and keep the nature of what’s already out there.”

Rao believes paving today’s green section of the BeltLine for a parallel path would wreck its bucolic character and create “our own 22-mile Interstate 285.”

BeltLine leader Higgs, himself an e-scooter rider, says micromobility strategies are part of the solution, but hardly a panacea. “If we’re growing like we think we’re growing, we’re going to have to have high-capacity vehicles,” says Higgs. “The math is really that simple.”

Inman Park resident Matt Cherry, a principal with the Lord Aeck Sargent architecture and design firm, which worked with the BeltLine on early feasibility studies, says no U.S. city relies on micromobility in lieu of public transit, and the chances of securing necessary federal funding to build out such a system are nil. Cherry lives about two blocks from the BeltLine, and his 11-year-old son uses the trail to commute by bike to Howard Middle School each day. Cherry has no qualms with his boy sharing the corridor with light-rail vehicles, discounting opponents’ concerns that safety would become an issue along a joint pathway, especially at crossings.

For his part, MARTA leader Greenwood, who helped grow streetcar transit in North America’s third largest system, in Toronto, insists rail safety on the Eastside Trail would be “nonnegotiable.”

Atlanta BeltLine rail
This rendering from Atlanta BeltLine shows one idea of what light rail could look like along the Eastside Trail, but no plans are final.

Photograph courtesy of the Atlanta BeltLine

Another huge sticking point involves aesthetics. As of this writing, MARTA was completing its contract with global engineering firm HDR for finalizing plans. The design documents are considered 30 percent complete, meaning little is set in stone. Rao and company are lobbying for Eastside Trail transit to run on “grass tracks,” or essentially what looks like a front yard, helping control water runoff and, as Gravel points out, making light-rail transit quieter by absorbing sound. BeltLine chief Higgs concurs, noting in an interview, “I want, personally, something that’s very verdant and green. You don’t need a concrete monstrosity.”

Naysayers take issue with the overhead aspects of the transit proposal—particularly with potential loss of tree canopy and the eyesores that are catenary wires used to power trains. “Trees Atlanta has done a great job of turning this into a linear arboretum, and all those trees go away with [rail]—none of which is ever shown with the renderings,” says Griswold. “We’re starting to use the term ‘visual lie,’ because everything MARTA and [BRN] and others put out, it never shows what it would actually look like.” Opponents say a substantial and likely unsightly barrier would be required by federal law to stand between the Eastside Trail and rail, but MARTA officials say that’s not the case, citing Federal Transit Administration documentation. As anecdotal proof, MARTA spokesperson Stephany Fisher points out that the current streetcar system already runs close by Woodruff Park.

Gravel notes that BeltLine light-rail stops would be close enough together that overhead wires might not be necessary, in that electric vehicles could quickly charge at each station before heading to the next. “Those systems [likely] cost more,” Gravel says, “but we can certainly do that.” And Cherry, the BeltLine consultant, echoes other supporters in saying complaints about aesthetics could help mask the fact that detractors just don’t want more people traipsing through their BeltLine backyards.

That notion, says Griswold, is hogwash. “[Rail supporters] paint us as NIMBYs [an acronym alluding to “not in my backyard”] and rich folks that just don’t want this because of whatever reasons, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he says. “But we do want something that makes fiscal sense.”

• • •

With a press release issued October 18 urging Atlantans to “preserve the BeltLine with 21st century transit options,” the formal opposition to Eastside Trail rail expansion—the Lakers to BRN’s Celtics—was born.

Better Atlanta Transit’s 18-member founding advisory board includes former Atlanta Housing president Renee Glover, writer and former Creative Loafing editor Ken Edelstein, former DeKalb County commissioner Jeff Rader, and development attorney Sharon Gay, a candidate in Atlanta’s last mayoral election who opined in BAT’s official announcement, “No studies show that this huge financial investment will enhance public transit ridership.” Another board member, Hans Klein, an associate professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy, caused a stir with a January 2023 Saporta Report editorial calling BeltLine rail “a dinosaur technology” that would ineffectively loop around the urban core instead of connecting into it.

BAT spokesperson Billy Linville, a public relations whiz who directed campaign communications for Georgia Governor Roy Barnes and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, describes the public reaction to BAT’s formation as “incredible” in terms of feedback and attention. “I think having any real public discourse about this is healthy,” Linville says, “whether you agree with putting rail on the BeltLine or don’t.” Just as BRN isn’t bankrolled by the likes of Siemens, Linville says BAT has received no contributions from autonomous-vehicle companies or others that provide alternatives to rail.

In November, BAT board member Walter Brown staged an exhibition at Ponce City Market called Once upon a Time on the Eastside Trail, with photography “presenting life on the BeltLine today in all its lovely greenery and human pageantry” alongside harsh renderings showing the reality of “BeltLine-destroying light-rail plans,” says Brown.

Atlanta BeltLine rail transit controversy
Better Atlanta Transit is concerned streetcars would crowd pedestrians on the BeltLine, as shown in this hypothetical rendering.

Courtesy of BAT

Rao did not attend the exhibit in person. From photos that he saw, Rao believes the images were not official and found them misleading.

Meanwhile, rail opponents point to Gravel’s social media post heard ’round the ATL urbanist world—“There’s something MAGA about this new transit hate group,” Gravel wrote in October, a sneering reference to “Make Atlanta Gentrified Again”—as brewing outright hostility. Gravel counters that several BAT leaders have been working behind the scenes to undermine BeltLine transit for years. In his estimation, they see the window closing to use leverage from so many new and moneyed intown residents, smear BeltLine rail with its association to the problematic streetcar, and “finally get their way and kill it.”

The rail debate has also become a war of numbers. In November, BAT released findings from a Global Strategy Group poll of 600 Atlanta registered voters suggesting that, among other findings, 53 percent of respondents would prefer that MARTA upgrade its current services rather than build BeltLine rail. On the flip side, BRN says that 12 out of 16 Neighborhood Planning Units the organization polled in 2022 are in favor of BeltLine rail, representing north of 250,000 residents.

So what comes next? According to MARTA, public engagement in the near future will focus on evaluating improvements to the agency’s current streetcar service. MARTA and its streetcar extension design team are planning to attend BeltLine meetings and quarterly briefings, along with regular neighborhood meetings, to provide updates as well. Also in the works for early this year, according to MARTA, are open houses and public forums where more updates will be relayed and “specific impacts” considered, in hopes of bringing designs for the rail extension to 60 percent completion soon.

As of now, MARTA’s outlook calls for breaking ground on the project in 2025 and beginning revenue service sometime in 2028. Meanwhile, says Higgs, by the end of this year, 85 percent of the BeltLine multiuse trail loop is scheduled to be either finished or under construction.

Though the reality of rail passengers on the BeltLine may still be half a decade away, the prospect is already impacting people’s lives near the Eastside Trail, on both sides of the issue. Fred Duncan, an early leader of grassroots rail opposition, decided to sell his Old Fourth Ward home and uproot to St. Simons Island last year, in part because he didn’t want to deal with rail construction and increased crowds. City taxes ballooning by 38 percent, Duncan says, also influenced his decision.

Conversely, there’s Inman Park resident Janice Darling, who joined the Streetcar Design Community Advisory Group early on in hopes of making BeltLine rail beautiful. She feels her ability to age in place with her husband, who is 15 years older than her, staying in the home where they’ve raised two teenagers, hinges on having rail options a short walk away. “I’m picturing 10 years out, and my husband’s not going to be walking or biking on the BeltLine. He won’t be able to walk to Piedmont Park or Trader Joe’s or Kroger,” says Darling. “We want transportation. So when we heard the rail was coming, it was exciting—expensive, but exciting.”

This article appears in our February 2024 issue.