So far, the majority of national and international media coverage of the Atlanta Beltline has focused on its mind-boggling scope, power as an economic driver or how it flies in the face of what Sprawlanta is famous for. Being recognized as the "best environmental rehabilitation project in the world" — a title the International Real Estate Federation bestowed on the Beltline in May — tends to attract widespread attention. But a Wall Street Journal article published yesterday (behind the newspaper's paywall) swaps the laudatory tone for one that's a little skeptical. Titled "Atlanta's Popular Beltline Trail Still Has Miles to Go," the piece nods to the project's transformative potential and its effectiveness in helping Atlantans lead healthier, less car-dependent lifestyles. But it doesn't shy from noting that Beltline construction has habitually been a slog, putting this nugget right in the subhead: "Only 7 Miles of Atlanta's Planned 22-Mile Reworking of Abandoned Rail Lines Have Opened Amid Funding, Legal Woes." A day trader nibbling on Cronuts yesterday morning might be wondering why Atlanta's most promising urban project can't get its act together.
For the uninitiated, the WSJ summarizes the Beltline thusly: "Expected to cost $4.8 billion, it is one of the biggest projects of its kind under way in the U.S., and is intended to connect 45 neighborhoods, from rich to poor, with trails, a network of parks and a light-rail system by 2030." Beltline chief Paul Morris tells the newspaper the project is "America's largest social experiment." As we've all seen firsthand, that's pretty accurate.
Just as we're straining ourselves with so much back-patting, the writer drops this humbling insight: "But with most of Atlanta's planned loop still occupied by junk yards and forest, some of the initial optimism is fading. The Beltline has yet to secure all the funding or land it needs, and it has been slowed by rising costs and legal challenges."
A Georgia State University professor of public management and policy named Joseph Hacker wonders aloud in the article if Beltline leaders are "being honest about some of the challenges." He's not been a fan of Beltline spending priorities. He'd prefer that the Beltline finish land acquisition before shooting for transit.
The recent Beltline squabble between the city and APS — hinging on a past-due $6.7 million property tax payment — is mentioned, among other funding hurdles. But the long-term 800-pound gorilla in the room is the $891 million in funding the Beltline has yet to secure — about 1/5 of the overall budget, as the newspaper points out.
Maybe, when construction fires up on the new Westside Trail and the Eastside Trail's southward extension, we can resume our regularly scheduled gushing over the Beltline. The Beltline's implementers have been adamant that both trail projects will begin this fall. Let's keep that in mind.