A planned route for the Atlanta BeltLine’s Northeast Trail through southern Buckhead has been sidetracked by a last-minute objection from a railroad company.

That means a planning delay for a project that already has a lengthy construction timeline, with an opening expected no sooner than 2026. Meanwhile, a basic BeltLine connection between the Buckhead border and Midtown’s Piedmont Park could come sooner, and a short section along Monroe Drive will open in a semi-finished state by late January.

An Atlanta BeltLine Inc. map shows the Northeast Trail crossing that Norfolk Southern objected to, circled in red at the lower left, and one possible alternative alignment that is under internal consideration.

Railroad company Norfolk Southern’s objection to the route was publicly revealed at a Dec. 8 Northeast Trail update meeting held by Atlanta BeltLine Inc., the organization that plans and builds the system.

ABI engineer Shaun Green said Norfolk Southern’s real estate division had reviewed the proposed route through the Armour and Lindbergh areas about 18 months to two years ago and had no “negative feedback.” A final version of that route was selected by ABI and unveiled in May.

But recently, Green said, Norfolk Southern’s public projects division objected to the proposal for the trail to cross its tracks at a “pinch point” northwest of I-85. The company, Green said, made it clear that “our proposed crossing location of their railroad was not going to be acceptable to them.”

ABI is now working on alternative routes and will have to “reset some of the expectations” on the project schedule, said Green. “We’ll have a lot more information for you guys in 2021,” he said.

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 and 10th Street in Midtown to the Lindbergh Center MARTA Station.

A short segment of the Northeast Trail is already under construction between the Buford Spring Connector and Clear Creek behind Ansley Mall, largely in coordination with a Georgia Power line replacement project. That section is expected to open by late January in an “interim condition,” ABI officials said.

Under internal ABI review is a plan for a much larger segment between Mayson Street in the Armour area and Westminster Drive in Piedmont Park. That also would include finishing touches on the “interim” segment, such as lighting, security cameras and plantings. ABI is preparing to seek permit approvals for that project from the city and the Georgia Department of Transportation, with the latter agency’s review process possibly taking six months to a year. ABI has yet to identify funding for the project, said landscape architect Meghan Injaychock.

The segment through the rest of Armour and Lindbergh to the MARTA station is by far the most complex — or as Green called it, “wicked tight” — as it would have to navigate a labyrinth consisting of commercial, industrial and residential uses; highway bridges and ramps; Peachtree Creek; and MARTA and Norfolk Southern rail lines.

Norfolk Southern’s late objection is a blow to years of planning, including an 18-month public review of alternative routes. However, Green said, ABI believes the general route concept can remain intact.

The alternative routes could still involve using an existing, Y-shaped railroad bridge over the Buford Spring Connector, with the BeltLine’s trail on one branch and its future transit line on the other. Green said ABI continues to assume that the transit line will stay east of the MARTA tracks and the trail will stay west of the Norfolk Southern tracks.

A map of the previously selected route for the Northeast Trail in southern Buckhead, which now has been partly blocked by Norfolk Southern’s objection. (Atlanta BeltLine Inc.)

The trail would still have a direct connection to the Armour Drive and Ottley Drive commercial area, Green said, just from a different direction and possibly as a spur line. ABI also believes that a plan to connect to Buckhead’s Peachtree Hills neighborhood and namesake park will still work. “It’s a great network connection,” Green said.

Even before Norfolk Southern’s surprise, the Armor/Lindbergh route’s complexity meant years of planning and significant expense. Green said it likely would take ABI until 2023 or 2024 to have construction documents ready for bidding. The overall segment between the MARTA station and the end of the Eastside Trail is estimated to cost $100 million to $120 million, he said. For fiscal year 2024, he said, ABI currently only has $8 million in funding identified.

Denise Starling, executive director of Livable Buckhead, the organization that builds and operates the conjoining PATH400 multiuse trail, estimated earlier this year that the Northeast Trail’s Buckhead segment would take until 2026 or 2027 to open.

Asked by a meeting attendee whether PATH400 money could be used to build some parts of the Northeast Trail sooner, Green said ABI is open to the possibility if it arrives. He noted that project funding often has “strings attached” that dictate specific locations and uses. But if PATH400 money was available to ABI, he said, “we’d definitely be working with them to do it.”

The meeting presentation is available online here. For more about the Northeast Trail project, see ABI’s website.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.