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City must use downtown streetcar to build Beltline momentum

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Cathy Woolard had a helluva an idea.

During a mayoral debate last year about the Beltline, the former Atlanta City Council President — and original booster of the proposed 22-mile loop of parks, trails and transit — took a break from moderating the candidates and offered some advice on how to speed up the $2.8 billion project's rather deflating 25-year timeline.

In short: Start by building the transit line along the Beltline's northeast segment that runs from Piedmont Park to DeKalb Avenue, and then connect it to an east-west streetcar line along Edgewood Avenue. Woolard's idea would put the transit near the highest concentration of people and businesses. It could be constructed while parks and trails were built along other Beltline segments. And — here's the kicker — it could help strengthen Atlanta's case for more federal funding to offset the cost of transit along the rest of the Beltline's loop. Woolard even left notes at City Hall, which we're sure officials could dust off and study.

Now's a good time to do so. Though you wouldn't know it from the recent Beltline-related parades and art walks, or upcoming bike-trail groundbreakings and park unveilings, the Beltline is in danger of running out of steam.

Thanks to the paralyzed development market — coupled with the difficult task of securing the remaining track segments, one of which is a still-active freight line — Beltline officials now must negotiate for land they can't immediately afford and wait for the economy to recover before it can draw from the project's primary funding source (a tax-allocation district that captures revenue from property value increases and new development).

To make matters worse for Beltline enthusiasts, the city has delayed an application for federal funds for the Beltline in favor of an application for federal funding of the downtown streetcar — a move that many suspect will further stall the transit loop. Though the proposed streetcar would run along Edgewood Avenue, it wouldn't extend as far as the Beltline. The city will be informed Oct. 15 if it received the streetcar funding.

Beltline and city officials should alter their course and make it a priority for the Edgewood Avenue streetcar to connect to the Beltline. The streetcar is a worthy project, in that it stands to bring tourists' attention — and developers' dollars — to the hip, up-and-coming Edgewood corridor. (Of course, the need for a streetcar a block north of and running parallel to MARTA is a bit questionable.) But the city should keep its eyes on the prize: A Beltline transit loop that will connect 45 neighborhoods and intersect at four points with MARTA, revolutionizing the way residents navigate the city.

Woolard had it right. On the night of the mayoral debate, her idea was greeted with loud applause because it was decisive, smart and radical. Such a bold step wouldn't delay the Beltline's trajectory nor would it stall other, less ambitious transit projects. In fact, given the current economic slump, connecting a downtown streetcar to the Beltline's transit loop seems like one of the best ways to keep the city moving forward.

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