By John Schaffner

The Connect ATL study team made its final recommendations to Buckhead residents Sept. 8, including the long-discussed grid changes at Piedmont and Roswell roads and an unspecified addition of 16 miles of rapid transit lines. What the study does not support is a connection from Ga. 400 to northbound I-85.

Although the presentation did not include the list of Connect ATL priorities for the entire city or an estimate of how much of the projected $3.3 billion to $6 billion total program cost would be spent in Buckhead, it did not seem to many of the almost 150 residents in attendance at the Peachtree Road Methodist Church that Buckhead’s traffic congestion was one of the top priorities.

Previous studies identified the lack of a direct ramp from Ga. 400 to northbound I-85 and from southbound I-85 to Ga. 400 as one of the major contributors to excessive traffic on the surface streets of Buckhead.

The Georgia Department of Transportation has proposed a flyover ramp system to correct the problem, but the city’s administration and the Connect ATL plan reject that proposal because it would affect 25 homes in a neighborhood off Lindbergh Drive between I-85 and Cheshire Bridge Road.

Gordon Certain, the president of the North Buckhead Civic Association and a strong proponent of a new Ga. 400/I-85 ramp system, suggested the 25 homes could be purchased to build the interchange.

“It does not make sense to have 25 homes hold up a solution to a traffic problem that affects 30,000 Buckhead homes,” Certain said.

Certain suggested during the previous update meeting a few months ago that Connect ATL consider a transit tunnel under north Buckhead neighborhoods to connect the central Buckhead business district with Cobb County and reduce the commuter traffic on Buckhead streets.

The Connect ATL planners rejected that idea as too costly and proposed instead a circuitous route of surface rapid transit from Cobb through northwest Atlanta and back to Buckhead, which would cost less but would double the travel time because of added distance and stops along the way.

The main east-west transit route Connect ATL planners proposed is a surface route — a light rail line from the Cumberland area of Cobb, through the Moores Mill redevelopment area along Marietta Boulevard, to the west side of Atlanta around Huff Road, across to Piedmont Hospital and connecting to the Lindbergh transit station, running along one segment of the BeltLine path.

The surface transit plan would cost about $365 million, compared with a projected cost of $1.2 billion for the proposed transit tunnel plan.

Both Certain and City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, who was instrumental in the Nancy Creek sewer tunnel project through Buckhead, challenged the cost estimate provided to Connect ATL for the tunnel plan.

Certain said he thought of a direct route from Buckhead to the Cobb Galleria area, which would be a shorter and less expensive route than the tunnel route Connect ATL planners studied. He said Buckhead “is being destroyed by the traffic.”

Consultant Paul Moore, who has worked on Connect ATL since its inception, suggested instead that “we manage the traffic with traffic-calming measures in the neighborhoods. Maybe the future of Buckhead is not making it easier to get from Cobb to Buckhead, but making it easier to live in Buckhead to get to your job.”

But Moore agreed there is a major east-west arterial connection problem in Buckhead. He said the big issue is that Buckhead was built and grew up as a suburban place with suburban form. “One of our primary goals is preserving neighborhoods. So running east-west roads or east-west transit lines through those neighborhoods is not something we are going to do as part of this plan,” he said.

“Buckhead has lots of jobs and lots of people trying to get to and from those jobs,” Moore said. “Those people are going mainly through neighborhoods. You have arterial streets that are separated by neighborhoods. The people are all backed up basically at one intersection, at Piedmont and Roswell roads. It is sort of Ground Zero for those people.”

He added: “What are our possibilities for untangling this mess? There are a lot of properties that are going to redevelop over time — shopping centers, apartments. As they do, we can start to rebuild that connectivity until eventually we have a network. We take what is happening at one intersection and separate it out into eight or nine intersections. It creates walkable blocks. …

“What you have is a village that serves these neighborhoods. We create a space that neighbors here can walk to and feel good about walking.”

Moore said Buckhead in 2030 is projected to have five rapid transit lines and five high-frequency transit stations, and Peachtree and Roswell roads would be transit corridors. He said Buckhead would “probably be the most dense transit system in the city with the possible exception of downtown.”

He said 69,000 residents live within a 10-minute walk of a transit station now. The projected growth for the city by 2030 “would change that to 180,000 without building any more transit. If all transit that is proposed, including the BeltLine, was built, 500,000 would be within a 10-minute walk of a rapid transit station. If we want transit to be successful, we have to have it be more accessible, and we have to have it be a more reasonable choice.”

He said mass transit is not a competitive option for many people. “If the time is about the same and the cost is less to take transit, people might do that. Today, with most situations in the city, driving is quicker, driving is easier, driving is cheaper, which is not a close call.”

Moore said the cost for a light rail system is about $40 million per mile. The subway cost is about $230 million per mile for tunneling.

Explaining why the city administration and Connect ATL planners rejected the proposed ramp connection between Ga. 400 to I-85, Moore said the problem is the impact on the neighborhood along Lindbergh Road I-85 and Cheshire Bridge Road. “The city has stated a position that is not an acceptable concept.”

The city will accept only something that stays within the current blueprint of the highways. “Those alternatives will cost more than what has been put on the table by GDOT and would involve what would be considered compromised standards,” Moore said.

In terms of total Connect ATL plan funding for 2009 to 2030, Moore said transit is $2 billion to $4 billion, sidewalks $500 million, streets $500 million to $1 billion, and bike paths $200 million to $300 million, for a total of $3.3 billion to $6 billion.

Asked what portion of the total Connect ATL cost would be spent in Buckhead, Moore said he did not have that figure. “We don’t have it broken down at this point.”

The big Buckhead projects are the intersection improvements at Piedmont and Roswell and addition of some north-south transit.