How the 2021 election could shape the future of the BeltLine
The BeltLine is one of the most popular walking paths in all of Atlanta. Any time that hot summer air dips below 75º, you can expect to find half the metro area population flocking to the BeltLine.
Right now there are a few parts of the trail open and paved— the Northside, Eastside, Southside and Westside Trails — that connect 45 neighborhoods and provide easy access to hundreds of shops, restaurants, and parks across the city. But the BeltLine is far from complete.
How did it come to be? What’s in the BeltLine’s future? And what are people concerned about? We’ll take a quick look at these big questions.
A brief history of the BeltLine
The BeltLine is a city project to convert old rail lines in the city into a 22 mile loop of walking and biking paths. The project was created as a master’s thesis in 1999 by Ryan Gravel, who was an urban planning student at Georgia Tech at the time. In 2003, Atlanta City Council approved a feasibility study for the project, and the nonprofit Atlanta BeltLine Partnership was formed in 2005 to head up the project.
The first section of the BeltLine to open was the West End Trail, which opened in 2008. Shortly after, the Northside Trail opened in 2010 and the Southwest Connector Trail opened in 2013.
In 2016, Ryan Gravel left the project over concerns about the project’s commitment to affordable housing and inclusivity. Shortly after, in 2017, the Eastside Trail expanded and the Westside Trail opened. Two weeks ago, on October 12, 2021, the Southside section of the trail opened. This newest section of the trail connects the Eastside and Westside Trails and runs from University Avenue to Glenwood Avenue.
The BeltLine is run by the Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., which works with the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, the city of Atlanta and partner organizations. Clyde Higgs is the current CEO of the Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., and a board of directors oversees the organization.
The future of the BeltLine
The parts of the project that are complete are super popular, but the BeltLine is still incomplete. There are plans to pave the current sections of the trail that are still unpaved. This is supposed to be completed by 2030.
When the BeltLine was originally proposed, it was supposed to include a light rail, which is a train system that shares space with other traffic, such as cars, bikers and pedestrians. This project is called the BeltLine Rail and would run alongside the path. Construction of the BeltLine Rail has been delayed and is now supposed to be completed in the 2040s.
Some movement has been made in making the project a reality. In 2016, Atlanta residents voted to approve a one-cent transit sales tax to go towards funding transit projects, including the BeltLine Rail. This sales tax funded seven miles of the project, but since then, MARTA has asked for more funding for the project.
Currently, MARTA is doing a study about how feasible building the BeltLine Rail is. Many people are suspicious that the agency is going to back out from the project and make a new bus route instead. This remains one of the biggest questions about the future of the BeltLine, and it’s one of the biggest ways in which your vote in 2021 can affect the future of the project.
One of the major criticisms of the BeltLine has been that it’s causing gentrification, which is when middle income and wealthy people move into low income neighborhoods, causing property values to rise and residents to be forced out. The BeltLine caused majority Black and Latino neighborhoods on the western part of the trail in particular to experience gentrification as housing costs rise and the area becomes more desirable. Critics say that the city didn’t do enough to make sure that affordable housing was accounted for by the project and that longtime residents weren’t forced to sell their homes as their property taxes skyrocketed.
The BeltLine has a few affordable housing initiatives that it is working on. The first is implementing the inclusionary zoning policy that the city passed in January 2018. The policy requires that any multi-family rental development with more than 10 units include a portion of affordable housing units. Either 10% of the total units must be affordable to someone making 60% of the area median income or 15% of total units must be affordable to someone making 80% of the area median income. (“Affordable” means that the household would pay 30% or less of its total income in rent.) Since area median income in Atlanta was $82,700 per year in 2020, 80% of area median income is about $66,150 for a family of four. The BeltLine is also providing tax breaks to developers building affordable housing units.
Another BeltLine controversy was over the use of electric scooters on the trail. Since the trail opened in 2008, it had a “no motorized vehicles” rule. However, in January 2019, Atlanta City Council passed an ordinance allowing e-scooters on the trail. Some BeltLine users were against the use of e-scooters, saying that they were dangerous and defeated the point of the trail being used for exercise. Other trail users pointed out that e-scooters provide a safe and convenient means of transportation around the city, which is what the BeltLine is all about. In June 2019, the city put an 8 mph speed limit on the Eastside Trail, which is in effect from 6 pm until 6 am from Monroe Drive to DeKalb Avenue. On other parts of the trail, the scooter speed limit is 15 mph. In July 2019, Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms stopped issuing permits for companies operating e-scooters and banned them temporarily in August 2019 from 9 pm until 4 am.
New BeltLine construction, the BeltLine rail, affordability and inclusion and the use of e-scooters on the trail are all issues that are currently up for debate in our city. Our elected officials have direct control over all of these issues, and who we elect this fall will get to decide the next phase of these important debates. Find out exactly where the candidates on your ballot stand on issues affecting the BeltLine at www.branch.vote.
Branch is a nonpartisan Georgia startup with a mission to make state and local government more approachable. You can find quality information about your next election by visiting www.branch.vote.