Mass transit has had a banner year in Georgia after decades of resistance. The state legislature approved a new regional transit authority encouraging possible MARTA expansion in such longtime holdouts as Gwinnett County, and Gov. Nathan Deal announced $100 million in bond funding for bus rapid transit on Ga. 400.

But in Perimeter Center cities that drove much of the transit advocacy in recent years, leaders are expressing anxiety as to whether they’ll get anything close to what they wished for. That Ga. 400 “rapid transit” may just mean buses sitting in traffic with everyone else – far from the locally preferred MARTA Red Line extension — and top end Perimeter cities have commissioned a study to see whether I-285 could handle meaningful transit routes, too. The one certainty for now: both highways are getting bigger.

Then there’s the question of who will represent the area on the board of that new Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority, or “The ATL.” Local officials say the selection will be a political battle through a complicated process.

I-285 transit study

The Georgia Department of Transportation is in the midst of rebuilding the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange, a huge project continuing into the year 2020. But that’s only the beginning. GDOT plans to add “managed” or “express” lanes to both highways in the interchange area. The I-285 portion is expected to begin a design phase in 2020 and could add four more toll-only lanes.

Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst.

Leaders of top end Perimeter cities are concerned that GDOT’s plan could eat up right of way for mass transit along the highway. Last year, Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst convened a group of officials from the major cities to talk about transit.

Now those cities are joining in a formal transit feasibility study for transit running along I-285 between Tucker and Smyrna. Other cities involved are Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, Chamblee and Doraville, and community improvement districts in Perimeter Center and Cumberland are joining, too.

The $129,500 study, approved July 24 by the Brookhaven City Council, will be conducted by consultants Kimley-Horn and Associates and Moreland Altobelli. In a June 19 letter to Ernst, Kimley-Horn staff indicated the study will include a comparison of light rail to bus rapid transit and possible funding through a “special service district” – a form of local taxing district.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul praised the study effort. “It’s crucial and I’m excited about it,” he said.

GDOT is aware of the study, according to spokesperson Natalie Dale, and “will continue to engage and coordinate with the city [of Brookhaven] as the study moves forward.”

Ga. 400 buses

Similar right of way concerns are dogging Ga. 400 transit plans. Lost in publicity for Deal’s “bus rapid transit” funding – which was presented as making metro Atlanta look more transit-friendly to Amazon as it selects a second headquarters site – is that “rapid transit” might not mean what it says.

In a Fulton County transit master planning effort last year, extending the Red Line train line was the locally preferred option for Ga. 400 corridor improvements, but political resistance in other north Fulton cities got that reduced to “bus rapid transit” or BRT. BRT means high-capacity buses typically using a dedicated lane or other traffic priority method, and officials say it’s unlikely that can happen – at least in a traditional way – on the ever-widening Ga. 400. That also makes less likely the idea, expressed in planning meetings, that a bus route could become a rail route eventually.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul.

Paul, the Sandy Springs mayor, was among the Red Line extension advocates – “If it were me, I’d extend it to the Tennessee line,” he says – but he acknowledges that BRT won immediate priority. However, he indicated he’s giving up on the idea of getting dedicated bus lanes and instead advocating with GDOT for using the future toll lanes, which in theory will have less traffic.

“If the buses get stuck in [regular] traffic, we’ll have a bunch of empty buses going back and forth,” Paul said.

The type of bus is also up in the air. Paul said options include articulated buses – essentially a double-body bus connected with a flexible joint – or four to five buses hooked together in a way that would “look and feel very much like a light-rail train.”

Paul said it is possible that some other form of transit could be chosen for Ga. 400, especially as technology changes.

Dale, the GDOT spokesperson, spoke only of general coordination with MARTA on Ga. 400 options. She said GDOT is “confident” that the agencies’ collaborative work “will result in a successful transportation solution in the [State Route] 400 corridor.”

“What we’re going to end up with, heaven only knows,” Paul said. “But we’re at the front end of a very important planning process.”

The ATL board

Another big question is who will be advocating – or not advocating — for local transit on the board of “The ATL,” the new umbrella authority for 10 transit systems in 13 counties. It will have a regional governance board with 16 members serving four-year terms, who must be in place by Dec. 1, according to a recent Dunwoody City Council presentation by Scott Haggard, The ATL’s director of government and external affairs.

Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs will be in The ATL’s District 3 along with Chamblee, Doraville, Kennesaw, Marietta, Peachtree Corners and Smyrna. The selection process for the district board member is a complicated series of internal votes, with significant influence wielded by state legislators, the Cobb County chairman and the Atlanta mayor, among others.

State Rep. Tom Taylor.

State Rep. Tom Taylor (R-Dunwoody) chairs the House’s side of MARTOC, the legislature’s MARTA oversight committee. He told the Dunwoody City Council that The ATL board member selection is crucial.

“This is going to be a very political process,” Taylor said. “Everyone has to be a self-advocate for their city.”

“This is probably the most important thing we do as a city in shaping this board … which will be a huge economic tool. We have State Farm because of MARTA,” said Taylor, referring to the insurance company’s huge, multi-tower complex going up alongside the Dunwoody MARTA Station. “We need to be in the driver’s seat for this.”

Sandy Springs Mayor Paul agreed and said he will push for the district board member to come from Dunwoody or Sandy Springs due to their locations at the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange.

“I’m not declaring my candidacy, but I’ve got passion and Sandy Springs is an important juncture,” Paul said.

“These are very critical board appointees,” Taylor said. “We cannot let this process get out of hand. This process is going to move quickly. The mayor of Pine Lake has just as much clout at the mayor of Sandy Springs. We need to engage in this process to make sure that it really represents north DeKalb.”

–Dyana Bagby, Evelyn Andrews and John Ruch

John Ruch

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