I-285 bus rapid transit plan gains steam with $16M study

Cobb County, MARTA and the ATL have approved the ambitious proposal

Metro Atlanta leaders are pushing ahead an ambitious plan to add bus rapid transit routes to the proposed express lanes on the top end of I-285, in what will prove a major test of the region’s ability to collaborate on transit — and pay for it.

Cobb County this week became the first metro area government to sign on to the MARTA-led effort to begin conceptual engineering and design work on the project, which would eventually see buses sharing toll lanes with passenger cars on the northern half of the Perimeter interstate loop.

The route would stretch from H.E. Holmes Transit Station on the westside to Indian Creek Transit Station in Stone Mountain to the east, crossing three county lines and connecting to the transit network of a fourth.

All told, preliminary estimates peg the cost of stations, operations and maintenance at close to $1 billion over 20 years, making it perhaps the most significant regional transit project since the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority, or the ATL, was created to facilitate such partnerships in 2018.

“This is a significant opportunity for our region,” Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid said Tuesday ahead of the board’s unanimous vote to fund the study.

Under a memorandum of understanding that so far has been approved by Cobb, MARTA and the ATL, the initial study would cost up to $16.2 million, with MARTA providing the bulk of it - about $14.3 million - using existing sales tax dollars. The remaining funding would come from American Rescue Plan dollars.

The ATL would chip in $1.1 million, Cobb would contribute $547,000 and Gwinnett - whose approval is still needed - would contribute $214,000 from their shares of federal relief. Gwinnett’s share is the smallest, because while the route is designed in part for use by its commuters, I-285 does not cross into the county.

Chris Tomlinson, executive director of The ATL, told the AJC the study likely won’t cost the full $16 million. But whatever the final price, the study is expected to be extensive, completing as much as 20 percent of the design work for the project to help the Georgia Department of Transportation develop its own I-285 construction plans with the transit piece in mind. The study will also come up with more precise cost estimates for the needed transit stations and infrastructure.

At a meeting earlier this month, GDOT officials said that prospective developers for the toll lanes, which are now envisioned as a public-private partnership, would be selected in part based on their ability to incorporate the bus rapid transit plan in the construction. That project, expected to begin in 2023, would put two toll lanes in each direction on the top half of the Perimeter. That means cars would be able to go around slower-moving buses if they’re added to the expressway.

“We know that transit in those corridors have to be part of the solution – it’s absolutely critical,” GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry said in a briefing earlier this month.

The regional agreement to fund the study, while an important step, won’t mean bus rapid transit’s a done deal. Even if federal dollars are secured to fund some of the work, local taxpayers may need to chip in hundreds of millions of dollars to come up with the rest.

The politics will be fraught for supporters. Cobb and Gwinnett voters have long opposed joining MARTA, and if a sales tax referendum is ultimately needed, they may balk at providing funding to a project that MARTA would operate with their financial help.

Meanwhile, even though Fulton County’s transit plan calls for bus rapid transit on I-285 and elsewhere, recent efforts to fund such projects have been stymied by regional disputes. Earlier this year, Fulton County commissioners refused to ask voters for an additional .2-cent sales tax to fund bus rapid transit projects along Ga. 400 and South Fulton Parkway. It failed in part due to opposition from Southside mayors who say public dollars have long flowed inequitably to the north.