Christopher Tomlinson, the director of the State Road and Tollway Authority, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and The ATL, speaks at the July 1 Sandy Springs Rotary meeting. (Evelyn Andrews)

Building a separate bus lane that could potentially be converted into rail in the future is a possibility on I-285, the director of the State Road and Tollway Authority said.

The Georgia Department of Transportation, which works with SRTA on financing projects, is currently planning to build toll lanes along I-285 and Ga. 400. Bus rapid transit is being considered for both pieces, with state funding already committed for Ga. 400.

A dedicated bus lane is not possible on Ga. 400, but “could be” on I-285, though officials are still “figuring it out,” said Christopher Tomlinson, who directs the SRTA, the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority and the new umbrella transit agency The ATL, said in a brief interview after a presentation to the Rotary Club of Sandy Springs on July 1.

Bus rapid transit is being pursued on I-285 instead of expanding heavy rail transit due to costs.

One strategy being considered to expand rail transit in the state is to one day convert dedicated lanes used for BRT into rail if more money becomes available in the future, Tomlinson said.

Tomlinson cited BRT projects in Gwinnett County as other examples of places this strategy could be used, and Tomlinson said the question is if there are any opportunities in Fulton County or Sandy Springs. I-285 is one place where it could be possible, Tomlinson said at the Rotary event. He later clarified there are no current plans or studies on doing this in Sandy Springs or I-285, but it is a concept SRTA is generally considering.

Heavy rail, like MARTA rail lines, costs between $250-400 million per mile. Ga. 400 being elevated would make it even more expensive, he said.

“I’m not anti-rail. It’s just a question of when or if we’ll have the money,” he said.

Building the I-285 toll lanes is estimated to cost $4.2 billion. But that highway money comes from a different pool, Tomlinson said. GDOT is prohibited from spending its funding on transit. SRTA serves as the transportation financing arm for the state and holds the construction contracts.

The agency is “working hard to attract more federal transit dollars,” he said. Part of that is having The ATL create a comprehensive transportation plan that determines the best places to fund transit, he said.

He also expects legislation to come back in the next session that would tax rideshare services to fund transit.

“We could try to hold out and wait until we find more money. But the problem is it takes so long to build transit projects, we need to do some things now,” he said.

Tomlinson is optimistic about the level of service even BRT can provide. Running them on the toll lanes is expected to provide “a lot of the features of rail with a lower cost,” including speed, he said.

“The problem is when everyone hears that, all they hear is ‘bus,’” he said.

SRTA is working toward getting more transit implemented, Tomlinson said, and on helping transit and road projects be more coordinated, like tying Park ’n’ Ride lots in with the coming toll lanes network.

“Seems common-sense. You would think that already happened. I can tell you, five years ago this wasn’t the case,” Tomlinson said. “The transit people talked to transit people. The highway people talked to highway people.”

Coordinating will avoid previous issues like needing to buy land for transit next to a highway after the road project has already been announced.

“Now the state, with state money, is paying the same prices, competing with people who want to build gas stations or hotels near the exits instead of buying it at a lower price,” he said.

Last year’s creation of The ATL added to the number of transportation agencies, but Tomlinson said it can help achieve the goal of working on a regional transportation vision.

“I have [an] alphabet soup of transit agencies that I’m responsible for,” he said.

In addition to the comprehensive plan, The ATL is working on an audit “to see everything happening in metro region in one place,” he said. It also advises cities and counties that want to implement transit, he said.

Update: This article has been updated with clarifying comments from SRTA Director Christopher Tomlinson.