The city is expanding the role of Atlanta Beltline Inc. beyond the Beltline: The nonprofit guiding development of the greenway will now be a key player in the city’s transit future.
The Atlanta City Council passed legislation this week naming the organization the city’s agent in completing the streetcar expansion and building out the city’s Connect Atlanta comprehensive plan, an aspirational list of street, transit and bicycle projects.
From here on, city officials will send work orders to Atlanta Beltline Inc., or ABI, which will then handle the bidding and oversee much of the process.
For Atlantans, the arrangement could mean projects like bicycle programs move faster, as ABI is expected to more quickly execute planning and construction. For ABI, the change signals the non-profit’s growth into the city’s go-to organization for transit needs. And for the city the move is a step towards greater control over its transit future.
To that end, Atlanta has applied to become a Federal Transit Administration grantee. When that happens, the city no longer must rely on MARTA or other entities to qualify for federal funding for projects such as the streetcar expansion. In fact, the city could become a competitor to MARTA and other counties for grant dollars.
“We’re evolving institutionally here,” said Tom Weyandt, Mayor Kasim Reed’s senior policy advisor for transportation. “We as the city have not had a transit operating function in forever.”
Relying on ABI for potential future streetcar work has no effect on the $98 million streetcar project set to open in downtown Atlanta next year, Weyandt said.
Construction on the figure-eight streetcar line, which will connect the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and Centennial Olympic Park, was launched under a complicated partnership between the city and MARTA. Though the city owns and runs the streetcar, construction contracts must be awarded by MARTA as they are the federal grant designee.
No MARTA dollars have contributed to the streetcar. And while the rapid transit system can’t directly profit from the streetcar, it could receive indirect benefits from streetcar connections to its stations, which should funnel passengers into MARTA. The streetcars will also connect to portions of the Beltline, a 22-mile ring of parks and trails that is partially complete.
Richard Krisak, MARTA’s chief operating officer, said the agency supports the city’s decision to use the Beltline organization to enact long-term transit plans. And if the city and MARTA wind up competing for funds, they will rely on the Atlanta Regional Commission to help determine transportation priorities, he said.
“The most important issue is for the region to compete more effectively on a national scale,” he said via email.
Weyandt said ABI staff includes transit experts who have worked on streetcar projects and are familiar with the types of environmental studies required. The arrangement is modeled after a services agreement between ABI and the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
Naming the Atlanta Beltline as its transit agent won’t slow the build-out of the Beltline itself, ABI officials said.
“That was part of the conversation, but we concluded this will make it potentially easier,” said Paul Morris, a former deputy with the North Carolina Department of Transportation who was named Beltline director this spring.
“It can actually accelerate it,” he said.
Morris, who called the services agreement “transformative,” said the organization’s new role will bolster the city’s chances at securing federal grantee status. That could bring more funding to the Beltline project.
Though city officials won’t learn of their federal status until this fall, ABI’s increased role has already begun.
First up, the organization will oversee environmental studies at places where the greenway project could intersect with planned streetcar lines. In the future, it could handle bidding the design or operations and management of the streetcars. Each aspect of the build-out will be funded by a variety of sources, such as a tax allocation district, private money, federal dollars or city funds with approval.
Some councilmembers voiced concern. Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean and Councilwoman Felicia Moore said the group needed more time to understand legislation approving the services agreement, introduced by Councilman H. Lamar Willis. However, the legislation passed 10-3.
“I am a fan of the Beltline … and I understand it’s important to get ourselves ready to apply for federal funding,” Adrean said. “But the council needs to do its work before we vote on this.”
Moore said the legislation was a “rush job.”
“This (agreement) isn’t for one or two years. It’s forever,” she said. “I think it’s our responsibility when we enter into agreements to understand what they are.”
But Weyandt said while Beltline officials will have the ability to approve contracts funded by tax allocation districts, it will not be able to spend city dollars without oversight.
“ABI isn’t going to be asked to do anything without approval by the city,” Weyandt said. “And they won’t be asked to do anything without the appropriate budget process.”
Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this report.