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Rallying support, Beltline visionary says transit will help squash ‘uneven outcomes’

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In his latest missive, Ryan Gravel argues that, without transit, the multi-use trail project is missing its mark

A photo and a rendering of what the Beltline would look like with light rail.
This 2005 image depicts a Beltline that Atlanta hasn’t yet seen.
Atlanta Development Authority

Ryan Gravel seems fairly stunned that his Georgia Tech thesis actually evolved into concrete form. You know it as the Atlanta Beltline.

Waxing on the project’s infancy, he describes it as “a grassroots movement of people and ideas [that] 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.”

Since 2001, when the ball really got rolling on the Beltline concept, the plan has called for a 22-mile loop of old railroad corridors to be transformed into a multi-use trail network, replete with a full loop of light rail transit.

In recent months, Gravel’s main crusade has been to ensure that transit promise is kept, in a time when MARTA’s board of directors seems keen on sending MoreMARTA tax cash—approved by voters in a 2016 referendum—toward non-Beltline rail initiatives, jeopardizing that part of the plan.

In his latest plea for the Beltline’s initial promises to be fulfilled—a blog post entitled “our moral imperative”—Gravel urges project officials, local lawmakers, and “ordinary citizens who may not have been around when we got started in 2001” to step up and help advance the plans, rather than wait around lamenting that someone else needs to.

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What Gravel is asking for isn’t some far-flung aspiration from out of left field. The abundance of political affirmation the project received in its younger days, he posits, was “one of the most highly engaged and democratic planning efforts in the city’s history.”

The Beltline, as it exists now, is a tremendously powerful catalyst for development, spurring economic growth and real estate investment each time progress is announced for a piece of the puzzle.

Property values and rent prices are skyrocketing along the paved path, especially in affluent neighborhoods along the Eastside Trail. But the Beltline, as Gravel and others have repeatedly stressed, was never meant to be a footpath exclusive to those who can afford a $14 burger or a $500,000 condo.

That, says Gravel and other Beltline champions, is why the project’s rail component is so vital to the goal of equity. The idea was pitched after local leaders, such as Congressman John Lewis, studied transit possibilities and found that curbing the city’s income inequality issues can start in the form of connecting all of its citizens—literally.

“Transit remained central to the concept, however, because it was the thing that made the Beltline for everyone,” Gravel wrote, later adding, “Both physically and metaphorically, it connects this divided city back together—north and south; east and west; young and old; rich and poor; every race, income, religion, and creed—offering a vision for equity back before that was a buzzword.”

But because only the non-transit aspects of the Beltline plan have been actualized, Gravel wrote, “we’re seeing uneven outcomes”—a polite way of saying gentrification.

Ironically, he added, the concrete for the existing Beltline never would have been poured were it not for the prospect of transit creating equity in the city.

“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,” Gravel wrote. “Literally, we would not be building any of it today—not the trail or any new parks—without that commitment to transit.”

Gravel’s blog post, like some before it, acts as a call to action, urging Atlantans on both sides of Interstate 20, in upscale Old Fourth Ward and underserved Pittsburgh, to read up on the importance of Beltline transit, and to urge elected leaders and neighborhood officials to advocate for something they shouldn’t have to advocate for—fulfilling a promise.

Wrote Gravel: “Your participation in this story is essential because it will be you that writes the next chapter.”