Mayors, CIDs across top end of I-285 studying a new transit line

February 23, 2019

The city of Smyrna and the Cumberland Community Improvement District have partnered with other cities and CIDs located along the top end of Interstate 285 to look at the possibility of a new transit line through that corridor.

A feasibility study conducted by engineering and design firm Kimley-Horn was presented to officials in January. Aside from Smyrna and the Cumberland CID, other partners include the cities of Brookhaven, Chamblee, Doraville, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and Tucker as well as the Perimeter CID.

The study looked at the possibility of a bus line or a rail line through the corridor. Smyrna paid $16,545 to the city of Brookhaven to help pay for the feasibility study, according to Jennifer Bennett, spokesperson for the city. The Cumberland CID contributed $15,000, according to Kyethea Clark, director of operations for the CID. Clark said she would be presenting information in the study to the CID’s board on Thursday and could not comment further until then.

The study breaks the project into two phases. Phase 1 would run from the area around Cumberland Mall in the east along I-285 to Peachtree Boulevard.

Phase 2 would be made up of an east portion and a west portion. The west portion would run from the Cumberland Mall area south along I-285 to the area around Paces Ferry Road. The east portion would begin around Peachtree Boulevard near Doraville and run south to an area around Lavista Road near Tucker.

For buses, the construction cost would be about $450 to $480 million, start-up and vehicle costs would be about $10 million and annual operation costs would be $8 million, according to the study.

For a rail transit line, construction is estimated to cost $4.2 billion, start-up and vehicle costs are estimated at $40 million and the annual cost to operate the rail line would be $16 million, according to the study.

Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon said while rail is more expensive and would take longer to build out, he believes his fellow mayors are united in preferring the rail option, but letting buses use the express lanes could be a stop gap.

“I’m good with that,” he said. “Anything that will keep people moving. You maybe could do buses first then get into the rail. I think we all agree that we’d rather have the rail, but it costs more.”

If creating a new bus route is the option pursued, the buses could eventually utilize new express lanes the state plans to build along the top end of I-285, which would be built in the same area examined in the feasibility study. The express lane project is estimated to cost $4.6 billion and be completed in 2028.

Bacon said the feasibility study on a transit system across the top end of I-285 is a proactive effort to have a plan ready to go when the ATL, a newly-created regional transportation commission, starts looking for projects to fund.

The ATL was created last year by House Bill 930 and signed into law by then-Gov. Nathan Deal in May.

“What they’re wanting to do makes sense as far as saying, ‘Look, here’s what we’d like to have. We’ve already done the study on it,’” Bacon said.

The new law also allows metro Atlanta counties to levy a sales tax of up to 1 percent to fund new transit projects.

Bacon said the transit project he’s been discussing with his fellow mayors could be funded by that new 1 percent sales tax.

Bacon has been the mayor of Smyrna since 1985 and lamented the fact that these same discussions have been going on for the last three decades. However, he thinks Cobb might be ready for transit soon.

“There’s always been this fear of MARTA coming out here. I think that’s been one of the biggest issues: the fear of MARTA and what that would do,” Bacon said. “I just think that something has got to be done. You can’t just continue to widen the roads. You can’t keep just doing that and just making it where you have more cars on the road. You have to do something to provide an alternate transportation. I think more people will be susceptible to that than they have been in the past.”

Bacon’s impressions are backed up by a survey the county government conducted last year. Of 900 likely voters surveyed by phone, 59 percent supported a new sales tax to fund transit project while 39 percent were opposed. The survey also found a majority of respondents — 51 percent — had a favorable view of MARTA compared to 17 percent who did not.

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