Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann discusses bus rapid transit

Suburban Atlanta mayors’ group eyes transit on I-285 top end 

Elected officials in several suburban cities have begun discussions that some hope will lead to a mass transit line along the top end of the Perimeter.

Mayors and other officials from communities stretching from Smyrna in Cobb County to Doraville in DeKalb met last week for a first conversation about the need for transit options along I-285. Officials from Sandy Springs, Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Chamblee and Tucker also are involved.

Some participants told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the discussions are in their infancy, and no specific transit proposals are on the table. But such talks - which would have been unlikely even a few years ago - are another sign that mass transit is gaining momentum in the Atlanta suburbs.

And with the state planning to widen I-285 and Ga. 400 in the coming decade – perhaps gobbling up precious right of way in the process – at least one mayor says he wants to make sure mass transit is part of the plan to address traffic on some of the region’s most congested highways.

“There’s a realization that there’s no footprint left to put transit (along the highways) if we don’t plan for it right now,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, who attended the meeting.

The initiative comes as Fulton and Gwinnett counties plan to bring public transportation initiatives to voters next year. DeKalb County and MARTA are weighing transit options for I-20 east of the city. Cobb County has launched a transit study that could lead to a referendum.

Meanwhile, Georgia lawmakers are discussing a big boost in state transit funding.

The increased interest in transit has been driven in part by a desire to address some of the world’s worst traffic. Economic development concerns have also played a role. Amazon’s search for a new corporate headquarters with transit access has highlighted the lack of public transportation in Atlanta’s suburbs.

Traffic on I-285 westbound near Ga. 400 exit. HYOSUB SHIN File Photo / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Nedra Rhone/Talk of the Town

Solutions to the region’s transportation problems are often discussed within county lines. But Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst, who convened last week’s meeting, said the cities involved face similar issues. They’re all spread along the northern half of the Perimeter, where hundreds of thousands of vehicles clog traffic each day.

“Traffic is probably the number one issue for every one of those elected officials that showed up,” Ernst said.

To address traffic congestion, the Georgia Department of Transportation plans a series of express lanes along the top half of the Perimeter, along Ga. 400 and on I-75 and I-85. In addition to carrying motorists willing to pay a toll, those lanes could become the backbone of a bus rapid transit system – commuter buses that make few stops and pick up passengers at stations, much like passenger trains.

Sandy Springs’ Paul said he’s not opposed to bus rapid transit. But he worries GDOT’s express lanes could use scarce right of way that might otherwise be used for MARTA rail or other transit options. And even if buses are the right transit solution, he said planning for such a system should be incorporated into GDOT’s design of the express lanes.

“There’s a lot of – panic is not the right word – a lot of thought,” Paul said. “We’re slowly boxing ourselves in with transit options on the north side.”

GDOT spokeswoman Natalie Dale said the agency works with partners like MARTA on all of its projects and “is proud that express lanes provide tremendous transit opportunities for existing and future transit services.” 

 But Dale said the motor fuel taxes used to pay for the express lanes can't be used for transit projects under state law. She noted neither MARTA nor any local government have current transit plans for I-285, and “purchasing extra right of way that may or may not be used in the future could unnecessarily displace homes and businesses.”

Paul said the next step is to engage GDOT and regional partners in a transit discussion. Eventually, the communities could band together to form a special taxing district to pay for any transit improvements.

“The question is, can you raise enough money to fund a project at this point?” Paul said. “At this point, we’ve got way more questions than answers. But at least we’re beginning to ask the questions.”

Atlanta’s suburbs have long resisted MARTA. But attitudes are changing.

Earlier this month an Atlanta Regional Commission survey found growing support for transit in a 13-county area. More than half of those surveyed in several counties – including Gwinnett, Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton – said they’d be willing to pay more in taxes to support a transit expansion.

ARC Executive Director Doug Hooker told the AJC recently the results should reassure elected officials they can discuss transit without being punished at the ballot box.

Still, the mayors’ group is moving cautiously. Dunwoody Mayor Denis Shortal, who sent a representative to the meeting, called it a chance to "do a little brainstorming and bring your ideas to the table."

“We all got in a room and talked a little bit and agreed to meet again,” added Brookhaven’s Ernst. “That seems anticlimactic. But that was the most important accomplishment.”

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The AJC's David Wickert keeps you updated on the latest in what’s happening with transportation in metro Atlanta and Georgia. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these stories:

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