After years of planning, the Atlanta BeltLine’s Northeast Trail finally has a course set through southern Buckhead, where it will connect to MARTA’s Lindbergh Center Station and PATH400 and other trail systems. But the expense and complexity of its meandering path, involving bridges and a tunnel, mean construction will take many years more, with an opening likely coming no sooner than 2026.

“Good news is, they have an alignment. Bad news is, it will take forever,” said Denise Starling, executive director of Livable Buckhead, the nonprofit supervising PATH400, as she described the conceptual route at a May 27 meeting of the Buckhead Community Improvement District.

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 is routed or along an existing railroad right of way. But between I-85 and Lindbergh, it must navigate a dizzying maze of uses, restrictions and challenges. The Armour Yard railyard, the existing MARTA Red and Gold lines, PATH400, the Peachtree Creek corridor and the future Clifton Corridor light rail line are among those complexities.

Atlanta BeltLine Inc. held a community meeting in June 2019 to show five alternative routes through the Buckhead maze. The final choice, unveiled May 14, is a variation on what was called “Alignment B.”

From the perspective of a traveler heading into Buckhead, the BeltLine trail and transit line would split at an existing Y-shaped branching of the railroad at Ansley Golf Club, where rail bridges cross the Buford-Spring Connector. The transit line will use the northern branch of the Y and run on existing railroad right of way directly to Lindbergh Center Station. The Northeast Trail will use the southern branch and begin its meandering course through the neighborhood.

A map of the selected route for the Northeast Trail in southern Buckhead. (Atlanta BeltLine Inc.)

After crossing I-85 and the rail line, the trail route follows the perimeter of the commercial district on Armour Drive. It runs behind the Buzzi Unicem cement plant to Peachtree Creek, following its course behind Passion City Church, then running along Garson Drive to Lindbergh Center Station.

The route includes two spurs. One continues following Armour Drive past the cement plant and over the rail line into the Armour Yard area. The other runs along Adina Drive to connect to PATH400, which in turn connects to the South Fork Conservancy’s Confluence Bridge under construction there and a trail network intended to link to Brookhaven’s Peachtree Creek Greenway. Near the cement plant, the Northeast Trail eventually would connect to another BeltLine segment, the Northwest Trail.

“It’s going to be such a critical juncture with its connection into PATH400, Peachtree Creek Greenway, the South Fork Conservancy’s trail,” said ABI spokesperson Jenny Odom. “It’s going to be such a cool part, so we definitely have a lot of great opportunities in that spot.”

It’s also a complex juncture. The tunnel and the bridges are expense items. Conceptual illustrations show tube-like glass covers over the bridges; some similar barrier is required for safety reasons by Norfolk Southern Corporation for bridges over its railroad lines. And right of way negotiations will involve many different players.

A conceptual illustration of a Northeast Trail bridge crossing Peachtree Creek and a rail line. (Atlanta BeltLine Inc.)

ABI doesn’t expect construction to begin until 2023 and it likely will take two to three years to complete, said Odom. The budget is unknown, she said. but it likely will be the BeltLine’s most expensive section so far. At last year’s community meetings, consultants gave a broad estimate of $10 million to $15 million per mile to build the trail in that area. The chosen alignment is very roughly 2.5 miles.

Starling, who has direct experience in trail-building with PATH400, said the “price tag on it is very, very large… It’s not going to be easy to raise that money.”

She said she expects it would not open until 2026 or 2027, much longer than she had hoped for connections to PATH400. In the shorter term, Starling said, she is looking for easier BeltLine connections to create, possibly in the area of Piedmont Hospital.

In the meantime, some work has begun on the section of the Northeast Trail south of I-85. Georgia Power is working there and will pave a section of trail. However, it would still need to be finished off by ABI, and would lack connections in the short term, so ABI is considering when and how to open that piece, according to Odom.

For more about the Northeast Trail design and presentation, see beltline.org/meetings. ABI accepts feedback at engage@atlbeltline.org.

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