GA: Transit Projects Pass State Muster

If metro Atlantans approve a sales tax for transportation next year, they could be riding MARTA trains from Lindbergh to Emory University within a decade. Four swaths of Beltline streetcars could be up and running, or you could take MARTA train lines to Turner Field, to Wesley Chapel Road or to Norcross.

Those are among the projects suggested for inclusion in a 2012 referendum that could likely be built within the 10-year term of the tax, according to a state report released Thursday. Dozens of other transit projects, such as smaller streetcars, bus lines or rehabilitation projects, were so simple they didn't need analysis.

Voters next year in the 10-county Atlanta region will decide on a list of projects --- being drawn up this summer from a pool of suggestions --- and a 1 percent sales tax to fund them. The tax might raise $8 billion over 10 years.

The report points out a harsh truth about Georgia transportation, one that will limit which commuters can have their trains first. Whether counties outside Fulton and DeKalb counties wanted mass transit or not, some are behind on significant planning for transit projects partly because the state's funding structure has long made it difficult to pay for.

As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in an exclusive story before the report's release, some of the highest-profile projects did not score as well in the state's analysis. For those projects --- including far-flung suburban lines in Gwinnett and Cobb counties and across the entire top end of I-285, and extending MARTA up Ga. 400 to Holcomb Bridge Road --- the first reason is geography. But compared with the suburban projects, most projects proposed by MARTA have a head start of a couple of years.

Even if long-distance projects could not likely be finished within the first 10-year tax period, work could be done to get them rolling or near completion, officials emphasized. For others, a piece of a project could be completed and operating while the rest is in preparation. No projects scored in the "red" danger zone of unreasonable risk in the state's report, and none scored low-risk either.

Still, the current setup of transportation planning on the state and local levels may have helped the MARTA projects meet the time frame.

MARTA has a planning staff of eight, but its powers end at the borders of Fulton and DeKalb counties. The Georgia Department of Transportation also has a hefty transportation budget and staff planners and engineers, but is not allowed to spend gas tax money on mass transit work. As interest in transit in the suburbs has grown, it's been up to individual advocates such as business districts or local governments to try to fill the gap catch as catch can.

Tim Lee, chairman of the Cobb County Commission, cautioned that for a long time, there simply wasn't an appetite for mass transit in places like Cobb.

But now that there is, he said, "Even if there's an attitude of support, without the funding source, there hasn't been a way to advance the projects" in major strides. The Community Improvement Districts in Cobb have worked hard to fund what preliminary work they could, but there is "no way" a local government can afford on its own the major steps taking bigger backing.

"There were a lot of things handcuffing us," Lee said.

Pushing a major transit expansion project takes enormous amounts of money and political focus. The Cumberland and Town Center Community Improvement Districts, self-taxing business districts in Cobb County, together spent $4 million on a study to jump-start the idea of a mass transit line along U.S. 41 a decade ago, said Malaika Rivers, the Cumberland district's director. Then the county used that to apply for another planning grant.

But that's peanuts. "Now's when the work really starts," Rivers said.

In Gwinnett County, "We wouldn't even be talking about transit" if it weren't for the self-taxing business districts that funded early studies, said Chuck Warbington, director of the Gwinnett Village CID, which spent $300,000 on a preliminary study and is contributing toward a $1.2 million follow-up study.

Legally, the state DOT is allowed to spend gas tax revenue only on roads and bridges. Even when it gets money it can spend on transit, as with federal earmarks dedicated for a commuter rail line through Clayton County, the DOT's roads-and-bridges focus has sometimes thrown up roadblocks there, too. A DOT board member in an open meeting once asked of that rail line, "What do we need to do to kill it?"

There's no such restriction against transit with the proposed sales tax.

The 21 mayors and county commissioners who are drawing up the project list have decided that if the tax passes, 15 percent to 60 percent of the money should be spent on mass transit. Transit advocates and groups including the Livable Communities Coalition argue that the figure should be at least half, to serve pent-up demand resulting from the state's inability to fund transit with the gas tax. Transit opponents say roads are a better investment.

Jannine Miller, director of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, noted that there has not previously been a major source of regional transit funding, and "the sales tax revenues, if the voters approve, would be able to give the transit buildout a shot in the arm that's not likely otherwise."

While MARTA has endured cuts that scaled back its planning ambitions, said Cheryl King, MARTA's assistant general manager for planning, that helped the agency focus on practical projects that faced fewer obstacles, she said.

Among the 15 transit projects that the state evaluated in a report released Thursday, all nine that the state declared a lower risk of busting the 10-year deadline were MARTA submissions or came from MARTA planning. Many of them had the extra advantage of a head start, having already been in preliminary phases for a couple of years.

To be sure, many factors influenced whether a project could be done in time. The major ones for suburban lines include geographical obstacles like rivers, or conflicts that require negotiation with other agencies or railroad companies. That's what stymies the western end of the I-285 line, which had a big head start thanks in part to funding from the Perimeter CIDs and a related DOT study.

Whatever the difficulties, there will "absolutely" be rail transit on the project list, said the chairman of the regional group picking the projects, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson. "In what form or fashion or direction I don't know. But in my opinion, there will be some rail projects."

About this report

As next year's vote on $8 billion in transportation improvements nears, our team of journalists is committed to bringing you every angle of this ongoing story. Our unmatched coverage continues today.

Getting it done

Projects that could likely be done within the first eight years of a transportation tax, with "medium" risk, according to the state:

Four sections of the Atlanta Beltline streetcars

MARTA expansion from Doraville to Norcross

MARTA line to Turner Field

MARTA extension from Indian Creek Station to Wesley Chapel Road

MARTA extension from Holmes Station to I-285

MARTA line from Lindbergh Station to Emory University

Projects that would likely take more than 10 years, or have "medium-high" risk of a stumbling block. In some cases, a smaller section could be done:

Commuter rail south through Lovejoy*

I-285 light rail from Perimeter Center to Doraville*

Light rail along I-20 corridor to Candler Road

Light rail through Gwinnett County

MARTA extension up Ga. 400 to Holcomb Bridge Road

Light rail through Cobb County

*Project could take less than 10 years, but has a risk of a stumbling block.

Source: Georgia Regional Transportation Authority

For a complete list of

projects and related articles from our ongoing coverage,

go to ajc.com/go/transportation.

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