Transportation wish list sliced to $12.2 billion

A wish list of the most urgently needed transportation projects for the 10-county metro area has proved to be hard to trim – even for seasoned planning professionals.

Working to match the amount of money that could be raised by a planned penny sales tax referendum, the Atlanta Regional Commission tried, but failed to cut the original list of $22.9 billion in projects down to even half of its size.

That means more cuts must come until the list equals the $6.1 billion that the 10-year tax could raise for regional transportation projects.

The regional planning commission presented its version of the list to a committee of local elected officials on Thursday. The list is only a suggestion, which the committee could use as a starting point or reject outright.

However, it indicates where some projects might be headed.

For instance, the ARC staff recommended funding Cobb County’s $917 million transit line from the MARTA Arts Center station to Cumberland Mall, while it said Gwinnett County should have $100 million to study a rail line but didn’t back funding a $1.1 billion light rail line from MARTA’s Doraville station to Gwinnett Arena.

Under this list, Clayton County could get about half of the funding it wants to restore local bus service, and commuters could see $500 million in improvements to the Ga. 400/I-285 interchange.

“This is the staff’s best attempt at collaborating with all of our local governments in the two weeks that we had,” ARC Chief of Transportation Planning Jane Hayse said. “This is only a first pass at getting to a constrained list. There is still a long way to go.”

Members of the roundtable’s executive committee have two weeks to digest the regional commission’s list before their next meeting July 21.

By Aug. 15, a list whittled to $6.1 billion is due to the full 21-member roundtable of mayors and county commissioners.

The roundtable has until Oct. 15 to decide on a final list for the summer 2012 ballot.

If approved by voters next year, the $6.1 billion in transportation projects, funded by a penny sales tax, could dramatically alter how metro commuters move between suburbs, job centers and the city core. But it would only begin to cover the region’s estimated $120 billion in transportation needs over the next 30 years.

Gone on the ARC’s proposed list is Clayton County’s $157 million commuter rail, a leg that was envisioned as part of a line someday reaching Macon.

Gone, too, is Gwinnett County’s $300 million Ronald Reagan Parkway extension to I-85.

Surviving the cuts were MARTA’s $1.1 billion Clifton Corridor line from the Lindbergh station to Emory University and Clayton’s $252.4 million conversion of Tara Boulevard into a “super arterial.”

Other projects were left on, but only with partial funding. That could pay for required studies or to get the projects to a stage where state or federal funds could be found to complete them.

The state Department of Transportation’s proposal to extend a heavy rail MARTA line to Ga. 140 in Roswell was reduced from $839 million to $100 million.

A bus or light rail line running along the top end of I-285, connecting to Hammond Drive and Perimeter Center, was slashed from $1.02 billion to $100 million.

And Clayton County’s $183 million to restore local bus service — which Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell has called the most critical project there — was cut to $100 million.

Bell, a roundtable member, said he wants an explanation from the ARC. He said he’s also disappointed that the commuter line has been cut and vowed to fight for it to be added back in.

There’s still enough on Clayton’s list, though, for voters to back the tax, he said.

“We’re not being left out by any means,” Bell said.

Atlanta’s $1.6 billion for Beltline streetcars was cut to $700 million. Atlanta submitted the proposal in four pieces.

Councilman Lamar Willis, an ARC member, said he isn’t complaining. Full funding would be a quarter of the sales tax’s draw for regional projects, he said. The balance could be raised with hotel/motel taxes or other sources.

“I think it’s a significant enough portion, where if we ended up with $700 million, there’s a good way to find our way to the full funding,” Willis said.

The ARC is the region’s official planning agency and is acting as technical advisers to the roundtable, the decision makers in the sales tax process. When it asked for the suggested cuts, the roundtable’s executive committee told the ARC to consider congestion relief, economic development and regional equity.

Besides the $6.1 billion for regional projects, the penny tax will raise $1.1 billion to be spent by cities and counties on smaller local projects.

Staff used computer modeling and statistical analysis, and met with transportation and planning directors from all 10 counties and the city of Atlanta to find out their “must haves” for the list, Hayse said.

Though roundtable members have said they want projects that can be finished within 10 years — the length of time that the tax would be collected — at least one project left on the list could stray outside that timetable.

A study by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority found that the Cumberland Mall leg of the Cobb line could take until 2026.

ARC Senior Principal Planner David Haynes said it was chosen over the Gwinnett and Clayton lines because while it might have questionable deliverability, it would yield better results.

The ARC’s projections showed that the full line, envisioned as eventually extending to Kennesaw State University, could have 31,700 daily boardings by 2025. The line to Gwinnett Arena was projected at just 13,800 daily boardings, and for the Clayton commuter rail, just 9,200 boardings.

While it held off on the full Gwinnett line, the suggested list did keep MARTA’s $146.4 million heavy rail line from Doraville to Oakcliff Road, which would get the line over I-285 but not quite into Gwinnett. It also included a $100 million study needed for the full line.

Roundtable chairman and Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson said there’s still enough on the list to significantly improve quality of life in metro Atlanta and leverage federal funds to get more work done.

“We’re not in this to please everyone,” he said. “Hopefully, we please enough people that the tax gets voted in.”

Read the document: What the ARC suggested to keep on the transportation wish list

Read the document: What the ARC suggested to remove from the transportation wish list

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