Bus rapid transit lines like this one could be coming to Ga. 400 and the Perimeter in metro Atlanta. But the state’s decision to delay construction of toll lanes may push back Fulton County’s plans for a referendum to pay for the new transit lines.

Fulton County transit vote may be delayed

The state’s decision to postpone construction of metro Atlanta toll lanes means a Fulton County transit vote may be pushed back to 2021.

Fulton officials have discussed sending a 30-year, $1.2 billion transit sales tax measure to voters next year. But the Georgia Department of Transportation recently pushed back construction on toll lanes along Ga. 400 and the top half of I-285. That would also delay the county’s plans to operate bus rapid transit lines in those lanes.

That means a major transit referendum next year makes less sense, County Manager Dick Anderson told elected officials Monday.

Instead, his staff may recommend including Fulton’s top two transit projects — bus rapid transit on Ga. 400 and on South Fulton Parkway — in the list of projects for a smaller five-year, $600 million transportation sales tax ballot measure in 2021. That measure would also include road projects.

Monday’s news is the latest twist in a years-long effort to expand mass transit in Georgia’s largest county.

Fulton’s transit plan calls for bus rapid transit in the new toll lanes along Ga. 400 and the top end of the Perimeter. It also calls for bus rapid transit in dedicated lanes along South Fulton Parkway, plus enhanced bus service elsewhere across the county.

Last year the General Assembly approved legislation allowing Fulton to impose a 0.2% transit sales tax, provided voters approved. It would raise about $1.2 billion over 30 years.

County commissioners and Fulton’s 15 mayors have been inching toward a referendum next year. But GDOT’s plans may change that timeline.

Last month the agency announced it’s delaying some projects in the state’s Major Mobility Investment Program while accelerating others.

Under the old timetable, toll lanes along Ga. 400 were originally set to open in 2024. Now they’ll open in 2027. Likewise, the completion of toll lanes along the top end of I-285 has been pushed back from 2028 to 2032.

Among other things, GDOT cited the need to take its time with a new contracting method for the Ga. 400 lanes and to break the I-285 project into smaller pieces to encourage more companies to bid on the projects.

On Monday, Anderson told elected officials it doesn’t make sense to ask voters to approve the transit tax next year for projects that can’t get started for many years. So his staff is seeking other ways to pay for the bus rapid transit lines on Ga. 400 and South Fulton Parkway in the short term.

Anderson said the easiest option would be to include funding for both projects in the county’s regular transportation sales tax, which will be up for renewal by voters in 2021. That five-year tax is expected to raise about $600 million. Including the two transit lines would mean less money for road projects in the initiative.

The other option would be to include the two projects in a 1-cent special local option sales tax for construction projects in the future. But under state law Fulton cannot impose such a tax, so that transit funding option would require the approval of the General Assembly.

Anderson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution his staff is leaning toward recommending the 2021 transportation tax vote.

Whatever option it chooses, the county would need to raise about $222.5 million to build bus rapid transit facilities on Ga. 400 and South Fulton Parkway. That assumes an additional $122.5 million in state or federal funding, plus an additional $100 million the state has already committed to the Ga. 400 project.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.