Regional transportation list approved

Five mayors and county commissioners from across the Atlanta region made history on Monday, agreeing unanimously on a $6.14 billion list of transportation projects to be built across 10 counties, and paid for by the region as a whole if approved in a 2012 referendum.

The list is a first draft, and can be changed over the next two months. There will be opportunities for the public to be heard.

If the projects are built, in just over a decade passengers could be riding trains from Atlanta to Cobb County or to Emory University, or traveling new, swifter ramps through the Ga. 400/I-285 interchange, or finding countless arterial roads wider and less clogged, from Henry County to Cherokee County and all points in between.

The list marks the first time that Atlanta regional leaders have divided up a major transportation funding plan for the region, deciding how much goes to roads and transit based on their own wishes.

The projects will get built only if voters approve a 1 percent sales tax to pay for them in a referendum next year. A final draft of the list must be approved by Oct. 15.

The 5-0 vote capped four hours of grueling line-by-line cuts and negotiations, and occasional moments of drama. The committee has been working on the list all summer, but forced itself to face many of the hardest cuts only in the final meeting.

“Hallelujah!” said the group’s nonvoting chairman, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, after Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews offered the final $7.5 million in cuts from a mass transit line that will go to Cobb County.

As the group voted unanimously to approve the list, laughter, broad smiles and applause spread throughout the room. “I’m speechless after that,” said Johnson.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed started the negotiations Monday offering to cut $10 million from the city’s allocation for the Beltline transit loop. Other cuts accepted Monday included big ones such as $47 million for an interchange at I-20 and I-285, which dropped from the list completely, and small ones such as $1 million from a $19 million project on Ga. 140 in Fulton County.

A bus project for the eastern I-20 corridor that could eventually lead to a rail project stayed on the list, but dropped from $250 million to $225 million, appeasing some concerned residents of south DeKalb County.

“This is a victory for the region,” said Reed, who played a central role in the negotiations, and is credited as key in getting the referendum law passed last year. “I think what turned the tide is not quitting and not being overcome by frustration or anger. There were a couple of moments where the conversation and the work could have gone either way. And I think all of the members did a good job of walking that back.”

The 10-year tax is expected to raise $7.2 billion, of which $6.1 billion goes to the regional project list. The other $1.1 billion may be spent by counties and cities on transportation projects of their choosing.

Committee members and staff worked through the weekend as the group grappled with $420 million in cuts that needed to be made, to bring their tentative list from last week into line with their budget. But they still arrived Monday -- a deadline for a draft list, under state law -- substantially over budget. In the end, a combination of newfound funding and cuts made the budget work.

The new funding is not really new: The Atlanta Regional Commission will attempt to move $120 million into the list from another pot of money that is set aside for cost overruns in the region’s regular transportation budget. Staff said that the region would still have substantial amounts of money left for overruns there.

Of the cuts, one of the largest — $80 million toward Georgia Regional Transportation Authority Xpress bus service — came from Gov. Nathan Deal.

During one of the many recesses Monday, Johnson and Reed left to go find him at the Capitol. In a quick huddle with his top staff, Deal said if $80 million dropped from GRTA’s allocation in the sales tax, he would accept that and ask the Legislature to fund it with state money as part of it currently is. The list originally contained $180 million for GRTA. Every project on the list has a project advocate, and GRTA’s is Deal, who appoints the GRTA board.

Reed and Johnson returned flush with victory, and announced the new figure. But the motion failed, as members from outlying counties voted against it, drawing an awed groan from the audience. Later, the cut was approved.

By state law, the final draft has until Oct. 15 to win approval from the full 21-member "roundtable" of mayors and county commissioners from each of the 10 counties.  They will now hold two months of public comment, in a dozen meetings across the region, to gauge whether changes need to be made to improve the list's chances for passage in 2012.

For some voters, that seems unlikely. Monday morning, about 20 tea party members gathered in the Capitol, many from Fayette County, to lambaste the transportation tax, and efforts that are under way to move the 2012 referendum vote from the July primary to the November general election.

"They want to skew the outcome," said Debbie Dooley, one of their leaders. Dooley added that she would consider the tax proposal only if the portion going toward mass transit were 25 percent or less. The portion approved in the draft Monday is about 55 percent, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission.

People voicing support for transit, including one in a wheelchair, were at the roundtable meeting Monday where the list was being formed. They pressed roundtable members to keep MARTA funding in the list, and praised Reed during the breaks for doing his part.

In the end, some members of the roundtable, including Gwinnett County Chairwoman Charlotte Nash and Henry County Chairwoman B.J. Mathis, say the list still needs tinkering, but if questions are answered, they could support it. Reed, for his part, thinks it's good to go.

What’s on the list (for now)

Here’s a look at some highlights from the draft list of $6.14 billion in projects that passed Monday. It still must go before the full roundtable. Some projects could get additional state or federal money.

Atlanta: Beltline, likely streetcars, consists of several sections, $600 million

Cherokee County: Widening Ga. 140 (Hickory Flat Highway), $190 million

Clayton County: Turning Tara Boulevard into a "super arterial," $130 million

Cobb County: Atlanta to Cumberland, possibly light rail, $856.5 million

DeKalb County: Clifton Corridor MARTA route to Emory University, $700 million

Douglas County: Widening Lee Road/South Sweetwater Road from I‐20 West to U.S. 78, $18.9 million

Fayette County: Widening Ga. 85 from Bernhard Road to Grady Avenue, $24 million

Fulton County: Improvements for the interchange of I-285 at Ga. 400, $172.5 million

Gwinnett County: Sugarloaf Parkway extension from Ga. 316 to Ga. 20 (Buford Drive), $296 million

Henry County: Widening North McDonough Road from Bill Gardner Parkway to Racetrack Road, $48 million

Rockdale County: Widening and improvements for Sigman Road from Lester Road to Dogwood Connector, $30 million

Some other notable projects

In some cases, the dollar amounts are what the sales tax would fund when supplemented with other sources (such as federal funds).

Mass transit

MARTA state of good repair funding (various upgrades), $600 million

Restore Clayton County local bus service, $100 million

Preliminary work on a possible light-rail line from Doraville into Gwinnett County, $95 million

Georgia Regional Transportation Authority Xpress bus service, $100 million

Eastern MARTA extension in I-20 corridor, $225 million

Gwinnett express bus service, $40 million

MARTA heavy-rail extension north to Ga. 140, $37 million


Interchange improvements at I-285 West at I-20 West, $149 million

Interchange improvements at Spaghetti Junction, $53 million

Replacing Courtland Street Bridge in Atlanta, $22 million

Widening Lake Acworth Drive from Cobb Parkway to Cherokee Street in Cobb, $29.1 million

Widening Ga. 360 (Macland Road) from Paulding County line to New Macland Road/Lost Mountain Road in Cobb, $30 million

North Druid Hills Road from Buford Highway to Lawrenceville Highway corridor improvements in DeKalb, $25 million

Widening Arnold Mill Road in north Fulton County, $46 million

Widening Camp Creek Parkway from I-85 to Welcome All Road in south Fulton, $60.3 million

Widening Ga. 141 (Peachtree Parkway) from Peachtree Industrial Boulevard to Chattahoochee River, $46 million

Widening Five Forks Trickum Road in Gwinnett, $10.4 million

Widening Thornton Road in Douglas County, $43 million

Widening U.S. 23/Ga. 42 from Ga. 138 to Ga. 155 in Henry, $44 million

Building a new East Fayetteville Bypass, $49 million


New air traffic control tower at McCollum Airport in Cobb, $2.5 million

Runway approach lighting system at McCollum, $690,000


Buford Highway pedestrian, landscape and bus improvements in DeKalb, $12 million

Lawrenceville Highway multi-use trail and pedestrian improvements in Gwinnett, $1.9 million