Friday, February 20, 2009

Envisioning a New Rail Hub for Atlanta: Part II

This is the second part of a three-part series looking at Amtrak's fight against Atlanta's Beltline and potential solutions that will make everyone happy. Today, I look at the conflict. Yesterday, I featured Part I: Context.

Part II: Conflict
The Decatur Belt
The current conflict between inter-city rail and the Beltline revolves around the Decatur Belt. This rail line was constructed in the early 1900s to facilitate the transfer of railcars between railroads. Along with the other Beltlines, a ring was formed around the core. These lines were always fairly lightly used and are often today surrounded by quiet streetcar suburbs and parkland.
The Decatur Belt ran from the Southern Railway's (now NS) small Armour Yard (not the same as the MARTA rail facility of the same name) to the Hulsey Yard on the Georgia Railroad (now CSX). It predates most of the development that now surrounds it, and forms a boundary between neighborhoods. It also demarcates the eastern boundary of Piedmont Park, one of Atlanta's most popular recreation spots. The line passes adjacent to upscale neighborhoods like Ansley Park, Virginia-Highland, and Midtown; it also passes by the gentrifying neighborhoods of the Old Fourth Ward and the area around the former City Hall East.

In the late 1970s, as a part of the construction of MARTA's East Line, DeKalb Avenue was raised, severing the Decatur Belt's connection to the Georgia Railroad at the Hulsey Yard. With little industry along the line, freight traffic slowly dwindled to nothing. Today, in many places rails and ties are missing, and any restored service, whether conventional rail or transit, would need all-new tracks. Additionally, any new freight or passenger service along the Belt would have to be reconnected to the Hulsey Yard, which would require an at-grade crossing of DeKalb Avenue.

In the years since trains have become scarce on the Decatur Belt, this former barrier between neighborhoods has become more permeable. With park goers at Piedmont Park relaxing just feet away from the former tracks and citizens strolling across and along them in order to get around the city, a new understanding of the Belt has come into being. People no longer view it as an insurmountable wall, but as a potential greenspace and transit corridor. The Beltline will build paths and parks on either side of the transit line and will knit the urban fabric back together.

With this vision in mind, developers have already started to flock to the neighborhoods around potential station locations. Condos and apartments now loom over the right-of-way in many places. New development is springing up in expectation of the increased mobility that the Beltline will bring. This project truly has the potential to redefine one of the Sunbelt's most sprawling cities.

Most pundits agree that the most feasible section of the Beltline is the Northeast segment--the Decatur Belt. Not only has some development already occurred, but in November 2007, a joint venture between organizations promoting the Beltline and a real-estate development company was able to purchase the Northeast segment for $66 million. With the land in hand for what is likely to be the first segment of the transitway and ring of parks, the project is closer to reality than ever before.

Rerouting the Crescent
But things are not always so simple. Transit projects in the United States have long faced an uphill battle. Today, the Beltline project is under attack from the most unlikely of sources, Amtrak. The Georgia Department of Transportation has long objected to putting light rail on the Decatur Belt, or northeast quadrant of the Beltline. They had hoped to use that segment of the line to route commuter trains from Gainesville into the proposed Multimodal Passenger Terminal (MMPT).

With the purchase of property in Atlantic Station on the same route for a commuter rail stop, it looked like trains might be routed down the trunk line on the west side of the city instead of via the Decatur Belt. However, recent talk of the Southeast High Speed Rail Initiative and planning for the MMPT has created a conflict over the Decatur Belt.

The decision to relocate the Atlanta Amtrak station is based on several factors, and in my opinion is a generally good thing. The problem, however, is that Amtrak and GDOT see the only feasible way for trains on the "Norcross District" to access the MMPT downtown is via the Decatur Belt. Since there is not room for both the Beltline and conventional trains, last month, Amtrak and GDOT filed a claim to stop the official abandonment--a step necessary for the Beltline to move forward.

This dispute has left many Atlantans unhappy. Not only do they see GDOT, which has a reputation for building roads to solve all problems, taking a stand against urban issues which will kill a project that has been moving forward for several years, they also object to the proposed use of the Belt. Not only does Amtrak plan to reroute the Crescent along the Decatur Belt. There are also plans for the Southeast High-Speed Rail Initiative to route trains into Atlanta along the same route. As mentioned above, GDOT is also considering routing Gainesville Line trains through these neighborhoods as well.

The main objection from these neighborhoods--besides the loss of the Beltline--is that the Decatur Belt is not appropriate for frequent high-speed trains. While most can see light rail trains sharing the right of way with parks, almost no one, including GDOT and Amtrak, can see people sharing the ROW with passenger service. Like the Northeast Corridor in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast US, the tracks would likely be fenced off, sealing this barrier between neighborhoods. Residents also object to the noise and other negative externalities that these trains will bring to their tree-lined streets.

These tracks have long laid dormant and rerouting trains over the Belt will not only create negatives for the people who live nearby, it will fail to give them any direct positives. With the Beltline, while trains will be present, at least people living in the area can use them to get to shopping and work.

It seems obvious that light rail and inter-city rail interests would usually find themselves on the same side of most issues. In my experience, most transit advocates, myself included, support Amtrak in addition to improvements to local transit. But despite the seeming relationship between a transit-friendly city and inter-city rail ridership, the conflict over the Decatur Belt has revealed that DOTs and Amtrak often have far different priorities than urban interests.

Thinking Outside the Coach
The main obstacle in this case is the Decatur Belt. As I mentioned above, Amtrak views this route as the only feasible alternative to routing trains to Downtown Atlanta. However, if some compromises can be made, I think it is possible for all parties to agree on a win-win situation. However, in order to get to this solution, we have to address some hurdles.

The reason that Amtrak will not use the CSX/NS trunk on the west side of downtown is because they have a policy against backing trains with passengers aboard. This rule has sealed the fate of many urban stations. To be clear, this does not refer to the orientation of passengers within the train, it refers to the position of the locomotive. If trains approached from the north and then left the city to the north along the trunk, trains would have to back out of the terminal around a wye (a 3-point turn, essentially) and then proceed. Since this movement would not have a locomotive at the forward end of the motion, Amtrak won't do it.

There are other downsides to refusing to back trains, even just to the nearest wye. Most notably, the Atlantic Coast Services (Silver Star, Silver Meteor, Palmetto) all stop at Amshacks in rail yards on the periphery of several major cities. In Charleston, Savannah, and Jacksonville, for instance, passengers find themselves miles from their destinations in areas with little in the way of amenities (links go to map location). These cities all had terminal stations, which Amtrak does not serve because trains would have to back out.

An alternative approach would involve moving the Crescent back to its original routing (Charlotte-Atlanta-Montgomery-New Orleans), it could pass through the MMPT on north-south tracks using the Atlanta trunk. To continue service to Birmingham, Meridian, and New Orleans over the current route of the Crescent Amtrak could reinstate the Southerner at least from Atlanta to New Orleans. This approach would require a redesign of the MMPT as currently envisioned.

I'll look more at these hurdles and some other potential solutions tomorrow in Part III: Solutions.


Anonymous said...

The rerouting idea through Montgomery seems like a simple enough solution, but I wouldn't bother with reviving the Southerner. As it stands, there's hardly any east/west Amtrak service in the deep south (other than the Crescent and the Sunset Limited.) I'd rather see a new line from Birmingham to Macon, or if we're being really optimistic, from Memphis to Savannah.

Froggie said...

I can see the concern regarding backing trains up, however. A) there are safety issues present. B) it takes time. C) your train engineer in the locomotive can't exactly see what's directly behind him/her.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of the beltline and the MMPT downtown. However, I can definietly understand the complaints of how that would affect the Beltline though. I'm looking forward to reading about possible soultions in you next posting. I certainly wouldn't want the MMPT to be in another location beside the "gulch" though.

Matt' said...

Anonymous II:
Please note that I've already written that post. Part III came out on February 21, the day after this one. There is a link at the bottom of the post.

I agree, the Gulch is really the only place that makes sense.