Fulton County is on track to create a “Transit Master Plan” by year’s end, and officials made a Sandy Springs stop July 27 for a first round of local input.

The 40-year plan aims to envision a county-wide mass transit network for such corridors as Ga. 400, I-285 and Roswell Road. It includes all Fulton cities except the biggest: Atlanta, which already has a massive MARTA expansion coming thanks to a sales tax increase approved by voters last year. The idea is to have Fulton’s plan done in advance of the 2018 General Assembly session, when lawmakers are expected to propose groundbreaking state funding for transit and possibly a new state-level transit agency.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul speaks at the July 27 Fulton County Transit Master Plan meeting while Eric Bosman of Kimley-Horn and Associates, seated, looks on. (John Ruch)

“You’re seeing a tectonic shift [toward the idea] that we have to come up with [transit] alternatives,” said Mayor Rusty Paul in an interview during the July 27 meeting.

Paul was referring to recent pro-transit commentary and actions by Gov. Nathan Deal and House Speaker David Ralston. But he pointed to the similar novelty of once-divided Fulton communities teaming up on the transit plan – an effort that followed from their alliance on last year’s successful road-oriented transportation special local option sales tax referendum.

“For so long, the dysfunction in Fulton County would not have allowed these conversations to occur,” Paul said. “I think the rest of the region is saying, ‘If Fulton County can pull this together, we can, too.’”

The Transit Master Plan is being pulled together quickly, under lead consultant Kimley-Horn and Associates, but in a process that allows for three rounds of public meetings. The Sandy Springs meeting, held at City Hall, was one of a series held in almost every Fulton city for initial input.

“We want to make sure this is a bottom-up approach,” said Kimley-Horn’s Eric Bosman.

Only a handful of residents attended the Sandy Springs meeting, which happened during a heavy rainstorm. Officials attending included City Councilmembers Gabriel Sterling and John Paulson; Fulton County Chief Operating Officer Todd Long; MARTA board member Al Pond, a Sandy Springs residents; and Dianne Fries from Fulton Commission Bob Ellis’s office.

Bosman said that one advantage in setting Sandy Springs’ transit priorities is the recent “Next Ten” process, which produced a new land-use plan and a zoning code that is nearing approval. The land-use plan includes concepts for some form of mass transit on Roswell Road and around Perimeter Center, among other areas.

The Next Ten is “a great starting point for this conversation,” he said. “The goal is to allow those planning documents to dictate where we look” for transit opportunities.

The Transit Master Plan, funded by the Atlanta Regional Commission, has three phases. The current phase is an assessment of existing transit and needs for it. Phase two, around August and September, will evaluate transit options and how they might be funded. Phase three, around November and December, will finalize the plan.

Why transit? Bosman reviewed three main reasons that have come up in the process: Better access to jobs in business districts; spurring economic development; and reducing traffic congestion.

The consultants are looking at all major forms of mass transit, from rail lines to buses to car-rental apps like Uber. Bosman noted that the plan will include short-, medium- and long-term ideas and that transit forms could change over time on the same right of way. For example, improvements might start by upgrading an existing bus route, which later becomes a bus rapid transit line, and eventually is replaced by a rail line, as demand or funding arise.

While the transit plan is Fulton-focused, it will include input from a similar master plan underway in Gwinnett County and some thoughts from Cobb County officials, Bosman said, so that the final plan has options that might line up with a regional system.

Audience comments included that transit be commuter-oriented and that, whatever form it takes, service should be fast and easy to use.

While the plan focuses on some obvious routes, such as the Ga. 400 corridor where MARTA’s Red Line already partly runs, it is open to other ideas. Paul asked Bosman to examine some options for re-routing some of today’s heavy commuter traffic from Johnson Ferry Road through East Cobb to I-285.

Another concern in Sandy Springs is that Ga. 400 and I-285 may be obvious places to pair highways with transit lines, but that the Georgia Department of Transportation’s ongoing reconstruction and future toll lanes could leave little physical space for transit.

“Where on God’s green acre can we put a train?” asked Sterling, who is also a candidate for Fulton County chairman. Paul echoed the concern in the interview, saying the only options might be on elevated tracks or in tunnels.

“We either gotta go up, which is ugly, or we gotta go down, which is expensive,” Paul said.

Bosman said his team is consulting with GDOT about transit right of way, but that there is “no direct answers on that today.”

Earlier this year, Paul said he was a convert to the idea of putting light rail — maybe even a monorail — in the area as the favored transit option. But now he says that he likes the master plan’s approach of examining demand and then choosing the transit technology based on it. “Let’s figure out where people go…and design a regional system that takes them there,” he said.

Paul said he also likes the concept of changing the type of transit on the same right of way over time. That is one reason the city is building a network of multi-use trails, he said, which could be paired with transit at a later time.

Last year, there was some talk that the Fulton mayors might seek state legislature approval for a transit-focused sales tax increase. However, asked at the meeting what Fulton might seek from the General Assembly next year, Paul focused on the administrative and policy side — the state’s ability to get even more players in the room and possibly create a broader transit agency than even MARTA is today.

“What it is we need from the General Assembly is leadership on putting something together across separate regions … We have to have the state leading the effort to create a regional network,” Paul said, adding, “I’d love the feds to get more involved.”

He also repeated his longstanding view that metro Atlanta is “30 years behind” on transit expansion, leaving the region’s economic future “really hanging in the balance.” He said “the judgment of history” will be whether the children and grandchildren of today’s political leaders will have a vibrant area to stay in or whether they will move to places with better economic options.

The Transit Master Plan’s main presentation and an online survey are available on the county’s website at fultoncountyga.gov/tmp-home.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.