Our Moral Imperative

A post from Ryan Gravel

Dear City Hall, Dear MARTA. Dear decision makers, dear agency staffers, dear community organizers, dear ordinary citizens who may not have been around when we got started in 2001. Dear young people who were children at that time. Dear anyone who cares about this city’s future – the Atlanta Beltline needs your help.

I’m asking on behalf of the project itself – the vision we shaped, not the various agencies charged with building it. I’m asking you to consider how far we’ve come, how far we have yet to go, the urgency of this promise, and your role in helping deliver it. Your participation in this story is essential because it will be you that writes the next chapter.

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The origin story of the Atlanta Beltline is well known – a grassroots movement of people and ideas fueled an audacious vision for land we didn’t own, to be built with money we didn’t have, in a regional context that at the time was almost hostile to the things we were proposing. But as the people of Atlanta fell in love with a vision that was better than what they saw through their car windshields, we pulled together, did the hard work, and brought this big, shared vision to life.

One of my fondest memories of those early years was on a MARTA bus with MARTA Board member Juanita Abernathy, wife of the late Reverend Ralph David Abernathy. With the support of Congressman John Lewis and others, the Beltline had been included in a study to look at the feasibility of transit. I was a volunteer helping MARTA navigate a tour of the route and sharing our vision with the Board. And like so many other Atlantans, Ms. Abernathy – this icon of American history – was excited to see all the connections it made in her world – to places she knew, histories she shared, and communities of people she loved.

That was a magical few years. The impossible was looking suddenly possible, because not only were we forming this incredible organic movement of people, but all kinds of nonprofit organizations and agencies like MARTA were also getting on board. People like Juanita Abernathy connected a vision for Atlanta’s future directly to its past – to the city’s identity of economic, social, and cultural inclusion, to the long legacy of Mayor Jackson and his message of community empowerment.

With the vision for the Atlanta Beltline expanding in unexpected ways, people fell in love with it for all kinds of reasons. Transit remained central to the concept, however, because it was the thing that made the Beltline for everyone. For communities experiencing growth, transit offered traffic-free access to the MARTA rail network. And for lower income communities, that network would provide access to jobs across the region. The support of such a wide variety of people provided the political clout needed for both public funding measures and private donations to move the project forward. Literally, we would not be building any of it today – not the trail or any new parks – without that commitment to transit.

That commitment was formalized in various ways, including the City’s Beltline Redevelopment Plan in 2005, which set land use and density proposals, and the MARTA Board’s decision in 2007 that the Beltline should be built with rail transit along the entire loop. In those and every other study, the funding for transit may not have been fully identified, but the commitment to transit was clear – allowing this remarkable story to unfold in Atlanta through one of the most highly-engaged and democratic planning efforts in the city’s history.

The enthusiasm and love for Atlanta that fueled our story was real. Not long after I met Ms. Abernathy, for example, I took Reverend Gerald Durley on a private tour in my small truck. A giant man in both his size and his spirit, at that time he was the pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church and we were asking him to join the first Board of the Atlanta BeltLine Partnership. As he pointed to the seemingly ordinary houses that were once homes to other American heroes, he described the circular nature of the Beltline in near-spiritual terms. Both physically and metaphorically, it connects this divided city back together – north and south; east and west; young and old; rich and poor; every race, income, religion, and creed – offering a vision for equityback before that was a buzzword.

That way of thinking defined our early movement. Our expanding vision allowed the Atlanta Beltline to be more than a transit line – it became an equitable and sustainable vision for our future made possible by this transit investment. And while there are reasons that transit has been delayed, the lack of it has challenged our ability to achieve that big vision. We’re only building other aspects of the project and as a result, we’re seeing uneven outcomes. Trails are great, but we won’t see the benefits promised by transit if we don’t build transit. And without those benefits, the people that were promised them will be gone.

Dr. Durley spoke to this accountability at the MARTA Board meeting last week in support of full transit funding. He implored them, “Do not neglect the moral responsibility” to implement transit on the Beltline – especially on the south and west sides of the city. He described MARTA’s “moral imperative” to follow through on the Beltline’s promise – to build transit that can help communities struggling with gentrification.

Fortunately, that help is now possible. With the Atlanta Beltline, we have made an impossible dream come to life. We’ve done all the planning. We’ve worked all the channels. We even voted for the money to pay for it – the hard work is done. All that remains is the urgent decision to follow through on the promise of rail transit – if we don’t do it now, it will never happen on time. We want the MARTA Board to prioritize rail transit for the full loop in the MoreMARTA plan and build it before the 2031 deadline that came with the tax allocation district. Importantly, we all have a role to play in making that decision come true – (here are some things you can do).

Doing the right thing will feel good. Cities all over the world are beginning to think this way about transit – as an integrated part of a larger, shared vision for our lives. If we do it, the Atlanta Beltline will be a global model for transit investment. We can include its challenges for affordable housing, workforce development, and economic opportunity in Beltline communities and also challenge ourselves to demand the same for any other project we build. Every investment on the MoreMARTA list should contribute directly toward a beautiful, inclusive, expansive, integrated, and equitable vision for our lives.

What might seem impossible is totally possible. Let’s do this, Atlanta. If any city can do it – we can. We’ve proven that by getting this far.