We’re at a crossroads. The origin story of the Atlanta Beltline is well known – a grassroots movement of people and ideas fueled an audacious vision for land we didn’t own, to be built with money we didn’t have, in a regional context that at the time was almost hostile to the things we were proposing. But the people of Atlanta fell in love with a vision – and we pulled together, did the hard work, and brought this big, shared vision to life.
Those were magical years. The impossible was looking suddenly possible, because not only did we form an incredible organic movement of people, but all kinds of nonprofit organizations and agencies like MARTA were also getting on board. People connected a vision for Atlanta’s future directly to its past – to the city’s identity of economic, social, and cultural inclusion, and to its legacy of community empowerment.
The vision for the Atlanta Beltline was expanding in unexpected ways and people loved it for all kinds of reasons. Transit remained central to the concept, however, because it was the thing that made the Beltline for everyone. For communities experiencing growth, transit offered traffic-free access to the MARTA rail network. And for lower-income communities, that network would provide access to jobs across the region. The support of such a wide variety of people provided the political clout needed for both public funding measures and private donations to move the project forward. Literally, we would not be building any of it today – not the trail or any new parks – without that commitment to transit.
That commitment was formalized in various ways, including the City’s Beltline Redevelopment Plan in 2005, which set land use and density proposals, and the MARTA board’s decision in 2007 that the Beltline should be built with rail transit along the entire loop. Funding for transit may not have been fully identified, but the commitment to transit was clear – allowing this remarkable story to unfold in Atlanta through one of the most highly engaged and democratic planning efforts in the city’s history.
The enthusiasm and love for Atlanta that fueled our story was real. I remember Rev. Gerald Durley from Providence Missionary Baptist Church describing the project in near-spiritual terms: it would connect this divided city back together – north and south; east and west; every age, race, income, religion, and creed – offering a vision for equity back before that was a buzzword.
Such a broad vision allowed the Atlanta Beltline to be more than a transit line – it became an equitable and sustainable vision for our future made possible by this transit investment. And while there are reasons that transit has been delayed, the lack of it has challenged our ability to achieve that big vision. We’re not building the whole project, so we’re seeing uneven outcomes. Trails are great, but we won’t see the benefits promised by transit if we don’t build transit. And without those benefits, the people that were promised them will be gone.
Rev. Durley spoke to this accountability at MARTA’s July board meeting in support of full transit funding. He implored them, “Do not neglect the moral responsibility” to implement transit on the Beltline – especially on the south and west sides of the city. He described MARTA’s “moral imperative” to follow through on the Beltline’s promise – to build transit that can help communities struggling with gentrification.
Fortunately, that help is now possible. With the Atlanta Beltline, an impossible dream has come to life. We’ve done the planning and all the hard work – we even voted for the money to pay for it. All that remains is the urgent decision to follow through on the promise of rail transit – if we don’t do it now, it will never happen on time. We want the MARTA Board to prioritize rail transit for the full loop in the More MARTA plan and to build it before the 2031 deadline that came with the tax allocation district.
If we do that, the Atlanta Beltline will be a global model for transit investment – an integrated part of a larger shared vision. We can include its challenges for affordable housing, workforce development, and economic opportunity in Beltline communities, and also challenge ourselves to demand the same for every other project we build.
Recently, Brian McGowan, the departing CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc., told the AJC that it wasn’t realistic to expect the More MARTA project list to fully fund Beltline transit now. That’s absolutely incorrect. There is money to build the Beltline and more. We just need our leaders to prioritize it – to follow through on the implementation of our big, shared, and long-promised vision, not an odd list of disparate projects.
Ryan Gravel’s college thesis created the concept that became the Atlanta Beltline. An earlier version of this piece is at https://ryangravel.com/2018/07/17/gravel-our-moral-imperative/ .