Perimeter firms seek transit solutions

Transit access is the new key to attracting and keeping talented young workers — in theory.

The reality comes with some sticky issues. For instance, how do you connect the last mile or half-mile between transit and the commuter’s destination, especially in suburban office parks? How do you pay for it? And even if you surmount those obstacles, there’s still a selling job to get people out of their cars.

Those are timely topics for the Perimeter Business Alliance, which recently convened a discussion among representatives of MARTA, the Atlanta Regional Commission and Atlanta’s airport, along with an entrepreneur pitching a monorail-type system he thinks could be cheaper than traditional rail.

The Central Perimeter area is metro Atlanta’s largest office sub-market, as well as a transportation nexus with two freeways and a MARTA line with four rail stations. But the area lacks a conventional street grid, developments are spread out and most of the office workers don’t live nearby. The Central Perimeter area also is suddenly awash in rising towers or drawing-board plans that promise more congestion, even if they are close to MARTA rail.

The Perimeter Community Improvement Districts, a self-taxing group of office complexes and other businesses, has partnered with the cities of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs for a $100,000 transportation study to look at ways to better connect the traffic-clogged area around Perimeter Mall.

Pending developments and others already underway have touted their transit-connected bona fides. For instance, State Farm is building the first of four office towers near Perimeter Mall and the MARTA’s Dunwoody station. Two other developers have proposed multi-tower projects, with high-rise residences, near the Dunwoody and Sandy Springs stations.

In addition, a Boston developer is expected to soon bring forward plans for the High Street project, just west of the Dunwoody MARTA station, with potentially thousands of residences, office space and retail. It’s been described as a possible new downtown for the young city.

Bob Voyles, CEO of development firm Seven Oaks Co., said the last-mile issue is critical.

“If we want to see successful transit-oriented development, we are going to need to solve this last-mile problem,” said Voyles, whose firm owns the Perimeter Summit office complex in Brookhaven. Seven Oaks recently started construction on the project’s third office tower.

Talk of intra-Perimeter area fixes comes as the city of Atlanta expects to bring forward this year a sales tax referendum to expand MARTA — largely through light rail.

All on the table

Yvonne Williams, president and CEO of the PCIDs, said the study will put all forms of transportation on the table – from automated trains like those seen at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to shuttle buses and trails. The cities have taken some flak when talk bubbled up about monorails and gondolas, but the point is to study as many types of transit as possible.

Williams said the study will incorporate the state’s plans for managed toll lanes and express bus service on I-285 and Ga. 400, and look for ways to connect cloistered office parks. The study is expected to be finished this year.

The Perimeter districts’ support has been key to help fund the Perimeter Center Parkway bridge over I-285, a diverging diamond interchange at Ashford Dunwoody Road and the upcoming overhaul of the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange.

Officials discussed the potential for an automated “people mover” like the two at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The train under the airport moves about 90 million passengers a year, while the one to the Georgia International Convention Center and the airport’s rental car center moves about 6 million people a year.

The train to the rental car center, which opened in 2009, cost about $225 million for three miles of track, but the cost was elevated because of the need to cross a freeway, freight rail lines and MARTA tracks, said Kevin Williamson, the airport’s aviation transportation systems director.

Take the High Road?

An entrepreneur on the panel, Bill Owen of Owen Transit Group, has pitched a monorail-like system his group says can deliver service similar to heavy rail at a fraction of the cost. His “HighRoad” system is designed with cars riding along the side of single beam. The firm has a design, but not a system in operation.

Owen projects a system could cost about $25 million per mile in the Perimeter Mall area, much cheaper than heavy rail. Owen said after the panel his system would be financed by bonds and the system could pay for itself from the fare box. Ideally, it would be owned by the state or other group that would issue bonds.

At a recent panel held by the Bisnow real estate publication, Dunwoody Mayor Denis Shortal said the Perimeter Mall area “needs to think outside the box” for answers to expensive transportation problems.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said at the Bisnow event that he is a big proponent of expanding MARTA, but more needs to be done than just a rail link north to Alpharetta that was once proposed but has since been put on the back burner.

A regional solution is needed, Paul said, and it should include transit along the Perimeter. He credited MARTA’s turnaround in recent years, but until it is expanded, he said MARTA cannot do all that it is capable of to help ease gridlock.