That was the message from Paul Morris, president and CEO of Atlanta Beltline Inc., the taxpayer-funded, downtown-based nonprofit managing the implementation of the project, at the Buckhead Business Association’s weekly breakfast meeting Thursday at City Club of Buckhead.
The BeltLine is a 22-mile ring of abandoned railroad tracks being converted into both bicycle/pedestrian trails and mass rail transit, with its northwest portion in Buckhead. It affects 45 neighborhoods and will have 33 miles of multi-use trails, but only seven are complete. The BeltLine project started in 2006 and is scheduled to be finished in 2030, with its funds from city, state and federal tax dollars plus donations.
It gets some of those funds from a tax allocation district that started eight years ago. Morris said the special tax pays for about 30 percent of BeltlLine projects. It is expected to create 30,000 jobs and more than 25,000 housing units, 5,600 of which must be affordable.
“Last summer we got an $18 million [Tiger V] federal grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation” to fund 2.5 miles of development along the BeltLine, said Morris, a Midtown resident. “The BeltLine is a game changer. … To see us reinvesting back in the city … really sets the tone for an exciting set of decades to come.
“It started [in 1999] as a mobility project [and master’s degree thesis] by Georgia Tech graduate student Ryan Gravel, an idea he got from a trip to Paris. He discovered four lines of regional abandoned railroads obscured by our beautiful kudzu. It started out as a way to get out and it’s grown to be something much bigger than that.”
Earlier this week the BeltLine won an award for engineering excellence for the Eastside Trail from the American Council of Engineering Companies. In February it took home the 2013 National Smart Growth Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, beating 77 cities nationwide for the agency’s highest honor. Both honors were given at ceremonies in Washington.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx visited the Atlanta BeltLine April 23 while on his Invest in America, Commit to the Future tour. Even Mountain View, Calif.-based Google stopped by.
“When Google recently came to Atlanta for an event, they asked if they could do a map of the BeltLine, and they had someone mount a camera to their bike helmet and ride the entire BeltLine to do a virtual tour,” Morris said. “It has stimulated a lot of activity.”
He joined the BeltLine in July after serving as deputy secretary for transit for the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The previous BeltLine leader, Brian Leary, was fired by its board in August 2012 after it was discovered he improperly used taxpayer funds. Chief Operating Officer Lisa Gordon led the organization in the interim.
As principal-in-charge, Paul facilitated a 350-person citizen task force through the process of creating a national park memorial dedicated to the victims of the 1995 bombing of the A.P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He also served as a consultant on both the Columbine and 9/11 memorials in Colorado and New York, respectively.
Of the BeltLine, Morris said, “The bottom line for us is … was it worth it? To date $325 million has been spent on land acquisition, environmental mediation and construction, development that would not have had if not for this project. We expect it to generate about $1 billion in revenue.”
He said the private sector funding has exceeded expectations.
“This is a situation where people put their money where their mouth is,” Morris said. “To date the private sector has donated over $41 million to the BeltLine. … Atlanta and the metropolitan area are among the most under-parked cities in America. We’re adding to the city’s inventory over 40 percent. It has huge consequences over quality of life, development and public health. 1,300 acres of parks are being built and re-configuring over 700 acres of parks. … In addition to that, you have the transition corridor itself. It circumvents the city and is actually pretty compact.”
He said his staff still has to clean up the brownfield sites along the BeltLine. But it is making strides, as its Eastside Trail has seen.
“It has had a million visitors in those two miles,” Morris said. “It is on par to compete with the Georgia Aquarium and the World of Coke in terms of visitors. Many businesses that turned their back on the corridor have now come back. Today some even use the BeltLine as their address.”
After Morris’ speech, association member Terry Love asked him, “Tell us about the Friday morning tours.”
Said Morris, "For almost eight years now our [BeltLine] Partnership organizes all of our programs. Every Friday and Saturday we have a three-hour tour on a luxury bus around the 22-mile loop. You’ll have a story that is about not just the history of the BeltLine but the history of Atlanta.
“We had 185 last year. The tours open signups online the 15th of each month and they sell out in a few hours.”