‘Gulch' transit hub plans shift out of idle

Seventeen years after the first plan was unveiled to build a major transit hub in downtown Atlanta, the Georgia Department of Transportation is trying again.

The agency Monday is scheduled to sign a $12.2 million contract for a new master plan with a team of contractors experienced in large-scale developments. It's led by Atlanta-based Cousins Properties and The Integral Group, along with Cleveland-based Forest City Enterprises.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and other dignitaries will join DOT officials to affirm the deal with the master development team.

The contract team's task: create a central hub linking MARTA, intercity buses and rail, help buy land for the project, identify public and private sources of financing, and surround the hub with commercial development. In the end, the transit hub could change the face of downtown, rerouting roads and rail lines and providing a central place for buses that are now sprawled across the central business district.

“It’s more than just another study,” DOT spokesman David Spear said. The contract is “that first initial concrete definitive step to move towards” an actual transit hub, he said.

It's the latest -- and perhaps biggest -- step the state has taken towards building a centralized transit hub on one of the last and largest tracts of undeveloped land downtown. The hub is slated for an area known as the “Gulch,” which sits between CNN Center, Five Points MARTA station and the Castleberry Hill neighborhood, flanked by freight rail lines.

No funding for the transit hub has been included in the list that metro voters will consider when they vote on a 1-cent regional transportation tax next year. But that why, in part,  the DOT has chosen developers who are expected to find private sources of money to build commercial development that will help fund the transportation element.

“The whole premise of a public-private partnership is that they know how to do this, where to identify and seek the funds. We’d like to certainly think it’s probable now,” Spear said of completing the hub.

Kaven Swan called it “the wave of the future.” He’s the St. Louis-based senior vice president and director of transportation for HOK, the global architectural firm, that wasn’t part of a winning bid team for the Gulch project. He said the firm was disappointed, but praised Atlanta for setting a U.S. precedent on how to use public-private financing for transit projects. It’s something places like Canada and China have done for years, he said.

Getting to this point has taken nearly two decades.

In 1992, the Atlanta Regional Commission identified the area as a good site for the station. Project plans were unveiled in 1994, but funding never followed.

Talk about building the hub again heated up in the early 2000s, as proponents of a Lovejoy passenger rail line also touted a central hub. Funding was even earmarked for a hub and the rail line.

But the money went unspent and progress stalled until last December when the DOT asked for proposals to design a hub. Three teams replied, and the Cousins team prevailed.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution got the first look at contract details. The contract gives the team two years to create designs, identify funding and work with the community to build consensus around the hub in a difficult environment for capital-intensive projects. By December 2013 it calls for the team to complete an environmental assessment; explore north-south rail alignment and its effects on MARTA, freight rail, roads and destinations; examine bus access issues; create a conceptual plan for the hub and surrounding spaces; work with the DOT on land purchases if needed; identify funding sources; and hold public hearings.

A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, believes the transit hub is crucial infrastructure for the city’s next 20 to 30 years.

“A master plan of this type is much more than just building a station and they will come,” he said. “I think we will get the best thinking that’s out there in order to make this work this time.”

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