A railroad company’s objection to the announced route of the Atlanta BeltLine’s Northeast Trail through southern Buckhead surprised attendees of a Dec. 8 planning meeting. But it was no surprise to BeltLine planners, who heard Norfolk Southern Corporation’s concerns months ago after publicly releasing the route concept without securing the railroad company’s formal opinion.

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.

Norfolk Southern and ABI both say they intend to collaborate on a new route, or “alignment.” ABI believes the general route concept can remain intact, project engineer Shaun Green previously said.

“Norfolk Southern Corporation has been, and will continue to be, a strong supporter of the Atlanta BeltLine project,” said Jeff DeGraff, a spokesperson for the Virginia-based railroad company, which is in the midst of moving its headquarters to Atlanta.

In a written response to questions from the Reporter, Atlanta BeltLine Inc. did not directly answer why the route was revealed earlier this year without a warning about Norfolk Southern’s review, why the railroad company’s objection was not immediately publicized, and whether there are any other pending reviews that could alter the route.

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 section along the Ansley Golf Club will open in a semi-finished state by late January, and a longer section between the Buckhead border and Midtown’s Piedmont Park is nearing a permit-filing stage. The full route is still undergoing planning and funding identification.

The most complex part of the route is in Buckhead between the Armour and MARTA station areas, as it has to navigate a labyrinth consisting of commercial, industrial and residential uses; highway bridges and ramps; Peachtree Creek; and MARTA and Norfolk Southern rail lines. ABI worked through several alternative routes in 18 months of public meetings before announcing a final route in May.

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.)

Over 30 minutes into the Dec. 8 meeting, which led with construction updates about the interim trail, ABI revealed Norfolk Southern’s objection to the trail’s crossing of its tracks in the Armour area. Green indicated that was a surprise because Norfolk Southern’s real estate division had previously reviewed the route and had no “negative feedback.” The objection came from a different division of the company, he said.

He said that means a planning delay for a project that already has a lengthy construction timeline, with a construction start expected no sooner than 2023 and no significant funding yet identified.

An ABI spokesperson later said that the organization learned of Norfolk Southern’s objection in July. ABI’s written statement did not answer why the public was not immediately informed, instead describing the Dec. 8 meeting and saying, “It was not enough content to warrant a stand-alone meeting.”

DeGraff indicated that ABI should not have been surprised by further Norfolk Southern review following their “early, preliminary discussions.”

“At the time, we asked to see more detailed plans before giving our formal opinion,” said DeGraff. “We did not get those more detailed plans prior to ABI’s release of their proposed alignment. Based on what we saw, we recognized several problems with the proposed location, making that location as not feasible.”

DeGraff and ABI said further planning discussion will happen. A preliminary engineering agreement is in the works to frame that process, ABI said.

“We certainly are committed to being responsible corporate neighbors, and support projects like the BeltLine,” said DeGraff. “However, we must ensure the safety of the public and our employees regarding the railroad tracks, and avoid potential interruptions for our customers. We look forward to continuing the conversation and finding an agreeable solution.”

ABI says it will hold further public meetings about the new route.

Asked about any other pending reviews of infrastructure that might also significantly change the route, ABI said only, “We continue to closely vet our variant alignments.”

For more about the Northeast Trail project, see ABI’s website.

John Ruch

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