The Atlanta BeltLine’s Northeast Trail is trying to find its way through southeastern Buckhead, and about 80 residents gathered for a June 25 community meeting to help chose among five alternative routes.

Four of the options involve zigzagging through the neighborhood, while one proposes a relatively straight shot up the existing rail corridor.

The general area in which the Atlanta BeltLine’s Northeast Trail alignment must run, according to Atlanta BeltLine Inc.’s June 25 meeting presentation.

The BeltLine is a proposed system of multiuse trails and an accompanying light rail mass transit line that would encircle intown Atlanta, largely using old railroad corridors. The transit has yet to be built, while several segments of the trail are already open, including the Northside Trail in Buckhead’s Tanyard Creek and Atlanta Memorial parks area. The Northeast Trail segment would connect the existing Eastside Trail from Monroe Drive in Virginia-Highland to Buckhead’s Lindbergh Center MARTA Station.

Between Virginia-Highland and I-85, the Northeast Trail has a fairly clear route, or “alignment,” along an existing railroad right of way. But between I-85 and Lindbergh, BeltLine planners face a dizzying maze of uses, restrictions and challenges. The Armour Yard railyard, the existing MARTA Red and Gold lines, the PATH400 multiuse trail, the Peachtree Creek corridor and the future Clifton Corridor light rail line are among those complexities.

At an initial meeting last fall, residents suggested many ways for the Northeast Trail to navigate that labyrinth. At the June 25 meeting, held at Rock Spring Presbyterian Church in Piedmont Heights, engineer Shaun Green of Atlanta BeltLine Inc., the project’s managing organization, revealed the options that he and consultant teams had winnowed down from 42 ideas, incorporating the variety of residents’ suggestions.

The five alternatives boil down to a couple of basic ideas. One idea is that, no matter what, the transit part of the Northeast Trail segment will roughly follow existing rail lines, while the multiuse trail may run a largely different, separate route. The other idea is that the Northeast Trail will stick to an existing Y-shaped split in the railroad at Ansley Golf Club, where rail bridges cross the Buford-Spring Connector; and that the multiuse trail will use one branch of the “Y” while transit uses the other. Of the five alternatives, three start the trail on the southern branch of the “Y” and the other two put it on the northern branch. All alternatives end similarly by connecting with Lindbergh Center Station along the MARTA rail line.

A map from the meeting presentation showing the Y-shaped split in a railroad line that the BeltLine’s Northeast Trail is proposed to use, with the multiuse path going on one branch and the transit line on the other. Of five alternative alignments for the multiuse path, three use the southern branch and two use the northern branch.

Because of those ideas and assumptions, ABI was not seeking direct input about the transit alignments and did not provide any detailed information about them. The meeting focused on the more varied possibilities of trail alignments.

Broadly speaking, putting the trail on the southern branch makes for meandering paths through the Armour Yards business district and varying routes closer to the creek or I-85. Of the two northern-branch alternatives, one is a similarly wandering path, while the other is the straight shot up the rail corridor.

Green offered several standards for sorting out preferences among the various alternatives, which were labeled alphabetically as “A” through “E.” (See the gallery below to view all of the alternatives.) There’s the additional distance in wandering paths, which equates with additional planning and construction costs. There are differences in how much new infrastructure would be required, such as tunnels and bridges, also adding to expense. Different routes would have aesthetic differences in their look and feel and even sound, such as highway noise. Some have more “stakeholders” and agencies whose approval would be needed – the alternatives range from five to 15 such stakeholders.

The added distance is a significant factor, with Green’s very general estimate of $10 million to $15 million per additional mile. The straight-line distance to be connected through the Buckhead section is 1.2 miles, he said. Four of the alternatives run about twice that length or more; only Alignment E, the straight shot up the rail line, is close at 1.37 miles.

New infrastructure could be significant, too. Alignment D, for example, might require a new tunnel alongside Armour Drive, of which Green said “constructability is tenuous, but we think we can do it.”

One attendee noted the variety of decisions to be made on aesthetics and uses, such as whether there would be more green space or more a business-oriented feel like the existing BeltLine segment along Ponce City Market. Two alignments would run near or under I-85, an area that Green described as an unattractive “moonscape” where plants will never grow.

Green emphasized that the alignments remain high-level concepts with many details to be sorted out later. “That’s why the lines are fat here,” he said of the routes drawn on maps, because “we’re trying to stay agnostic” on how actual right of way might shake out. In addition, all of the proposed alignments focus on the main trail, but all would involve various spurs and connections to other trails and local resources.

Among the attendees discussing the complexity of connections and uses in the area was Debra Wathen, vice chair of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods. She sought to coordinate with Green on some of her organization’s ideas for improving bus transit as an alternative for commuters who currently use I-75 and cut through residential neighborhoods.

While the meeting focused on Buckhead’s trail issues, some residents from south of I-85 also had concerns. Kate Buchacz, a resident of Wimbledon Road in Piedmont Heights, said she wanted a more direct connection in her area so that her kids would not have to go through tunnels around Armour Yard or other complexities. “My dream is my children could take Wimbledon to the BeltLine and bike all the way to Grady High School,” she said.

Sorting out the alternatives will take more time. ABI expects to finish the trail design and have construction documents by 2022. The Atlanta BeltLine Inc. has posted the written meeting materials on its website, with the full presentation here and the detailed maps here. To provide comments online, click here.

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