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What’s permanent about pouring billions into Atlanta’s Gulch for HQ2? We need room for passenger rail.

The City of Atlanta is reportedly considering an incentives package worth up to $1.75 billion for Gulch redevelopment. The State of Georgia is expected to weigh in with its own as well. Will the public receive anything permanent or lasting from this exchange?

Atlanta has a generational opportunity at the Gulch site in the heart of the city. Amazon is expected to make a decision on its HQ2 site by the end of the year. A fast-moving conversation is underway regarding the Gulch — widely viewed as Atlanta’s most logical site for Amazon — and development incentives.

The AJC reports that the City of Atlanta is considering a public financing package worth up to $1.75 billion. The State of Georgia’s own bid for the HQ2  is said to include more than $1 billion in incentives.

As ThreadATL noted in January, the Gulch and its associated rail infrastructure are the reason Atlanta exists as a city, and the site has long been eyed as a hub for regional and statewide transit. The same factors that make the Gulch attractive for a transit hub — its location, its history, and its potential connectivity — also make it attractive to Amazon. The company has state that it wants to be a part of a dynamic, well-connected urban environment.

While the Gulch offers elements of this today, the location has the potential for something much greater. A regional rail transit system (including a hub at the Gulch) must be a central component of the incentive package offered to Amazon and any associated development.

Adding infrastructure to incentives packages is common practice

It’s common practice in Georgia to bundle transportation infrastructure with economic incentive packages. In the late 2000s, when the state lured a new Kia Motors car assembly plant to West Point, the incentive package included tens of millions of dollars in public infrastructure spending, including a new interchange on I-85, a series of access roads, and a railroad spur serving the plant.

Kia plant
Kia plant in West Point, GA, along with the interstate highway interchange included in the package.

If we are willing to build a new interchange for a car plant, why not a regional transit hub for a company that has clearly stated its interest in regional transit access?

In addition to providing lasting, tangible benefits to local residents, a regional rail component would significantly enhance the bid for HQ2. Regional rail is the one thing that Amazon can’t do on their own, and regional transportation is Atlanta’s largest weakness in comparison to other leading East Coast contenders. Cities like Boston, Chicago, and Washington DC boast robust, multi-layered rail networks, with both urban metro systems serving the central core and an extensive regional network connecting to suburbs and nearby cities — a critical ingredient that Atlanta lacks.

Invest in the future with intercity rail

A major transit hub at the Gulch would help disburse the project’s economic gains throughout the state. It would bring talent to Amazon’s doorstep from universities around Georgia, helping drive a pipeline of students and employment opportunities for a generation.

Passenger Rail
Eurostar train station. Adding new rail into the mix could turn the Gulch redevelopment into a great project on a regional scale. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Rail connectivity to Athens, Augusta, Columbus, Macon, and Savannah would help ensure that communities throughout the state benefit. It would also help alleviate pressure placed on the local Atlanta economy through increased housing costs and other undesired effects. Properly conceived, the Gulch project can enhance both equity and economic opportunity in Atlanta and statewide.

Amazon is interested in being a transformative entity. We must answer this call with a proposal that is equally impactful, one that goes beyond traditional monetary incentives. A vision for a transformed regional transportation system would not only answer that call but also leave a lasting legacy for Atlanta and Georgia.

Call to Action

Atlanta City Council will hold a joint work session on Tuesday, Aug. 21, at 9:30 AM to discuss the Westside TAD and the Gulch project.

Representatives from Invest Atlanta, Fulton County Government, and more will likely attend. City Council will take no official action. The work session is open to the public, and will take place in the City Council Chambers at City Hall. If you can attend, please do.

State-level action:

– Ask gubernatorial candidates about their position on regional passenger rail.

– Call on state and local leaders to ensure that rail infrastructure becomes a prerequisite for sales to third party entities.