LOCAL UPDATE: State to spend $100M on new bus rapid transit system on Ga. 400

Gov. Nathan Deal said the state will spend $100 million in bonds to build a series of four new bus-only interchanges along a 16-mile stretch of Ga. 400, hailing it as a “groundbreaking” state investment in mass transit.

The sum is included in the governor’s 2019 budget - Deal cited a need to keep up with a “21st Century economy and workforce” - but until Tuesday it wasn’t clear where the money would be spent.

The project is part of a broader $1.8 billion overhaul of the highway designed to add new toll lanes and accommodate bus rapid transit interchanges.

Georgia officials Tuesday announced a major down payment on a transit expansion along Ga. 400 in north Fulton County.    The state will spend $100 million over the next several years to buy property and build new bus rapid transit interchanges along a 16-mile stretch of the busy highway between I-285 and McFarland Parkway.

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He said the bustling Ga. 400 corridor, which links north Atlanta’s suburbs to the city’s urban core, was picked because it could quickly help eliminate congestion around economic hubs.

It is the first time the state, Fulton County and MARTA have directly partnered on a mass transit system, Deal said.

“We are introducing collaborative solutions for both transportation and transit, which is exactly what the ATL and Georgia’s commitment to improving mobility are all about,” he said.

Georgia ranks 27th among the states in transit funding – spending about $14.5 million annually. But this is the second time in recent years the state has offered a big infusion of one-time cash for transit.

The Hands-Free Georgia Act takes effect July 1.

In 2015, lawmakers approved $75 million in one-time grants for transit projects. That money helped pay for 11 projects ranging from an upgrade to Gwinnett County's Sugarloaf Mills park-and-ride lot to a new audio-visual information system for MARTA rail stations.

This year's $100 million windfall was part of a banner year for mass transit in the General Assembly. Lawmakers also passed House Bill 930, which allows 13 metro Atlanta counties to impose new sales taxes for transit construction, if their voters consent. The law also creates a new board to oversee transit funding and construction in the Atlanta region, and re-brands the system as the ATL. 

It's part of a broader political shift that has led to one of the largest mass transit expansions since MARTA's tracks were first laid. After decades of paltry state support, a growing number of Republicans are supportive of more transit funding, pitching it as a way to entice more business development.

“This is a huge step, and it shows the sea change in attitudes by the Republican Party,” said Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul, a former chair of the Georgia GOP. “It shows that we can change, we can be flexible, and move forward with reality.”

The new funding was celebrated by transit advocates across the state. Still, while $100 million sounds like a lot of money, it doesn’t go far when you consider the cost of a MARTA rail line through the Emory University area alone would exceed $1 billion.