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Does the train have wheels?

Critics grouse: Beltline emphasis is parks, not transit

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Some say the wheels have been knocked off the Beltline. Others say no one has a solid, let's-get-it-done plan to mount a transportation engine in the visionary concept of ringing intown Atlanta with a necklace of transit, parks and development.

What's clear is that Atlantans hoping to hop a Beltline trolley or train -- well, they're going to be a whole lot older before they get that chance.

Terry Montague, the new president of Beltline Inc., insists "transit is at the heart" of the project and that "preparation for transit is very much underway." But she concedes "the 'when' question is hard to answer."

Five years? Eight years? A decade, maybe two? No one can say. Compare Atlanta's invisible-ink timetable with that of other cities, and there's reason for tut-tutting.

"Denver and Salt Lake City have planned and built rail lines while we've been talking," says Cathy Woolard, who, when she was City Council president, became the mom of the Beltline. Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper told CL that the latest addition to his city’s rail system, a $1.7 billion, 19-mile line, was conceived planned and opened in less that seven years — only a little longer than Atlanta has wrestled with the Beltline concept.

Woolard argues that Franklin has decided to emphasize parks over transit. Waving a city advertisement for "Atlanta's Project Greenspace," Woolard says, "This is where the money is going, not transit."

Developer Ray Weeks, chairman of the public-private Beltline Partnership, says money is available for parks now -- including funds from deep-pocket philanthropists who are kicking in to a capital campaign for greenspace. "They think transit needs to be a city function," Weeks says.

And no decision has been made on which entity will operate the Beltline, according to Montague. That's polite-ese for saying the corporate musclemen who surround Mayor Shirley Franklin aren't happy with MARTA's featherbedding and inefficiency, which is understandable.

The downside of mooning MARTA is that the transit agency has a huge war chest of cash for capital improvements -- money that could be used now to kick-start the transit component of the Beltline.

One transit proponent, who has extensive experience at the federal level on rail projects but is reluctant to criticize Franklin publicly, says, "The mayor is in the last years of her administration. There isn't enough time to complete a rail component. Anything that's started, her successor will claim the credit. So she's creating her legacy, a thousand acres of greenspace."

If that's not enough to convince you to hold on to your SUV a little longer, here's more.

There's brutal infighting among movers and shakers, with ground zero being developer Wayne Mason's proposed high-rise towers in the northeast quadrant of the Beltline. Mason's son, lawyer Keith Mason, says one of his former Beltline consultants, political operative John Ahmann, "stabbed us in the back," by working against Mason while still collecting paychecks from the developer.

The low-profile Ahmann has emerged as a verrrrry interesting player in city politics. Maria Saporta, the AJC's power-broker reporter, has given him credit for helping seal the deal for the city to acquire MLK's archives. Generally, Ahmann is described as a "policy adviser" for Franklin.

A former economic development exec at the Metro Atlanta Chamber, Ahmann three years ago purchased control of a public policy/public relations firm whose clients included Wayne Mason. Ahmann is no longer with the firm, and his ex-partners Jane Langley (who still works for Mason) and Adam Levy expressed anger at him.

Ahmann denies betraying Mason, saying he resigned from the account in early 2005, before he emerged as a player in the project opposing the developer's high-rises. Keith Mason says Ahmann quit May 22, 2005. A May 8 memo from Ahmann to Weeks and others discusses strategy on dealing with Mason.

Whatever, Ahmann ended up as executive director of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, one of the three entities involved in the Beltline. The ACP is a group of business elite, sort of Franklin's corporate politburo. Then there's the Beltline Partnership, a coalition -- also heavily corporate -- of those with a stake in the project, and Beltline Inc., the city agency that will implement the Beltline plans.

What's absent is a major citizens' voice. Woolard says she was pressured to disband her activist group, Friends of the Beltline, by Ahmann and city officials when the Beltline Partnership was formed.

Thus, circa right now, what we have is people such as Montague and Ahmann saying there is just so, so, so much to do before work begins on transit. And that's not incorrect. A lawsuit has stalled the funding mechanism -- or "tax allocation district" -- of the Beltline.

"I'd love to have $140 million from the TAD to spend on transit," Weeks, the partnership chairman, says. "But we have to get past the lawsuit first."

The city also wants comprehensive zoning for areas adjacent to the project. That's worthy, although it's likely that part of that scheme would be to strip existing residential and industrial zoning from Mason's property, which almost certainly would provoke more litigation.

And Mason's five-mile stretch is the only part of the Beltline where transit would work now. George Dusenbury, head of the greenspace advocacy group Park Pride, notes, "Transit doesn't make sense going from nowhere to nowhere." Outside of the northeast quadrant, the Beltline doesn't have a lot of somewheres. Any effort to start transit work must first resolve the dispute with Mason, who withdrew his plans after Franklin refused to meet with him or to offer meaningful counterproposals. Mason had offered to donate his right-of-way to the Beltline, as well as about $100 million of TAD revenues to fund improvements in the comparatively desolate south side of the Beltline. Mason's critics argue -- convincingly -- that high-rises are inappropriate in residential areas surrounding Piedmont Park, and would likely lead to developers surrounding Atlanta's green jewel with canyons.

So, what's missing? For Franklin to tap an emissary from her corporate phalanx to hammer out a compromise with Mason. And she needs to set a deadline for when the trains will roll.

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