The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners is expected next month to consider a countywide transit master plan designed to improve current rail and bus service and determine where to build new transit over the next 30 years.

As part of that consideration, commissioners will also have to decide if they believe voters are motivated enough to vote for a sales tax increase to pay for the proposed improvements, which include light rail, bus rapid transit and arterial rapid transit in north and south DeKalb.

The proposed full-penny DeKalb transit master plan scenario would include four light rapid transit routes; four bus rapid transit routes including along the top end of I-285; and eight arterial rapid transit routes. Those expansions would cover 180 project miles.

DeKalb County, the Atlanta Regional Commission and MARTA worked with local municipalities and gathered public input over the past year on a proposed transit master plan with three broad goals: address the county’s mobility challenges, foster economic development and improve quality of life.

Consultants with VHB recently toured DeKalb cities and in June made presentations on proposed and conceptual transit master plans to the Brookhaven and Dunwoody City Councils. Both presentations spotlighted two scenarios: a 1 cent sales tax increase that would raise $3.65 billion over 30 years and fund 16 projects, and a half-penny increase that would raise $1.85 billion over 30 years and fund 15 projects.

Increasing the sales tax requires a vote. DeKalb’s current sales tax is 8 percent.

Going to a referendum is a major decision, Grady Smith, VHB project manager, told the Brookhaven council at its June 10 meeting. He said he is hearing DeKalb leadership is wanting more time to consider the proposals and is seeking input from the cities on what they would like to see. Recommendations do not include timing of a possible referendum, he added.

Funding transit expansion through a sales tax referendum up to 1 penny in DeKalb was made possible by the General Assembly’s passage of House Bill 930 for 13 counties in metro Atlanta. The bill also created “The ATL,” the regional transit governing body, and dedicated $100 million to fund public transit in the area.

There are two other scenarios DeKalb transit plan options – one would be to do nothing and focus on maintenance and sustaining capital improvements of the 40-year-old MARTA system; the other is a plan adopted in 2012 that includes heavy rail from Indian Creek to Stonecrest Mall.

The 2012 plan is unaffordable, according to VHB, who said it would take at least a 2-cent sales tax increase.

The half-penny and full-penny scenarios both include funding BRT along the top end of I-285 by utilizing the toll lanes, or managed lanes, infrastructure the Georgia Department of Transportation is planning to build. Both scenarios would cover costs for buying buses, or trams, that look like a train but run on rubber wheels. The funding would also pay for construction of boarding stations and operations costs.

Under a half-penny scenario, funding would cover one light rail route, five bus rapid transit routes, nine arterial transit routes and 139 project miles.

A recent study commissioned by a north end task force including Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Sandy Springs, Doraville and Chamblee estimated BRT along the top end of I-285 could cost up to $480 million by using GDOT’s toll lanes.

The planned toll lanes have divided elected officials in Dunwoody and Brookhaven, with some saying the toll lanes will not alleviate traffic as promised and would harm local neighborhood, while others argue the only way afford much-needed transit on the north end is to use GDOT’s infrastructure for the toll lanes.

“In looking at the half-penny and full-penny scenarios, including BRT on I-285, your finance models would be blown out of the water if the managed lanes are not constructed by GDOT?” asked Dunwoody City Councilmember Jim Riticher at his council’s June 10 meeting.

That is correct, said Laura Everitt of VHB.

In Brookhaven, Mayor John Ernst, who sat on the project management team during the master planning process, expressed excitement about potential transit projects in the city that would be funded by the full penny or half penny scenarios. One possible project includes a dedicated BRT line on Buford Highway. The 39 bus that serves Buford Highway is MARTA’s most used line, transporting workers who often are forced to stand during commutes.

A proposed ART route from Pill Hill to Johnson-Ferry Road to Ashford-Dunwoody Road to the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe MARTA station and then down North Druid Hills Road to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s medical campus and to Emory’s planned medical expansion at Executive Park would connect these two major healthcare giants together, he added.

“This is the first time we are seeing transit benefit a majority of DeKalb, in the North, South, East and West,” Ernst said. The full-penny scenario would also put 1 million jobs within one hour of transit, he added.

“That’s a massive impact for Brookhaven,” he said.

He also praised the proposed plans for trying to “future-proof transit unlike any other plan out there” by including consideration of autonomous vehicles. Councilmember Bates Mattison even asked if gondolas were considered as right-of-way rapidly shrinks and mobility above the roads may become necessary.

Grady Smith, VHB project manager, said nothing is off the table.

In Dunwoody, council members raised questions such as what would be included on the priority list if a plan is approved and the referendum goes to the voters. If a referendum is approved, who would decide what projects would be cut if funding comes in short, they also asked.

At a special called June 18 meeting, Councilmember Tom Lambert said the DeKalb transit plan appeared to be trying to solve a regional problem at the local level. “There are way too many variables and I’m not comfortable without having a lot more answers than we have now,” he said.

The council approved a resolution to send to the DeKalb BOC saying the city “must be” included in decisions including selection and priority of projects.

Types of transit service

  • Heavy rail transit (HRT) – Operates on tracks separate from traffic. People board at stations. Cost to build is about $250 million per mile.
  • Light rail (LRT) – May operate in their own lanes separate from traffic, such as streetcars. Cost to build is about $120 million per mile, or $75 million per mile for a streetcar.
  • Bus rapid transit (BRT) – A bus that operates like a train with passengers boarding from a platform at their own stations. Cost to build is about $25 million per mile.
  • Arterial rapid transit (ART) – A bus that operates on regular streets so that vehicles are affected by congestion, but short bus-only lanes adjacent to major intersections are used to reduce delays. May also employ technology giving ART buses priority at traffic signals. Cost to build about $2.5 million per mile.

Source: DeKalb County Master Transit Plan

Dyana Bagby

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.