This rendering shows what a proposed bus-rapid transit system connecting Kennesaw State University to Midtown Atlanta could look like. About $100 million of the $494 million BRT system could be paid for with sales tax, county officials said Tuesday. Originally estimated to cost $1.1 billion, the price fell to $494 million in January when a dozen grade separations — bridges and tunnels — were eliminated from the project that is proposed to run alongside Cobb Parkway.
Special to the MDJ
MARIETTA — About $100 million of the $494 million proposed bus-rapid transit system connecting Kennesaw State University to Midtown Atlanta could be paid for with sales tax, county officials said Tuesday.
Originally estimated to cost $1.1 billion, the price fell to $494 million in January when a dozen grade separations — bridges and tunnels — were eliminated from the project that is proposed to run alongside Cobb Parkway.
The Cobb Board of Commissioners heard for the first time Tuesday exactly how the funding for the project could break down during a presentation by Ed Ellis, project manager for Kimley-Horn and Associates, which was paid $3 million by the county to complete an environmental assessment on the transit system.
The largest part of the $494 million cost could be paid by the New Starts grant administered by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Transit Administration. Ellis estimated as much as 49 percent of the project — $242 million — could be paid for by that federal program.
Another $152 million, 31 percent, could come from other sources, Ellis said, such as additional federal grants, Cobb’s cities and universities, community improvement district funds, naming rights revenue, potential public-private partnerships and private organizations.
The remaining cost would be paid for by the county government.
“The current proposal is that Cobb County would contribute $100 million to the project, which is 20 percent,” Ellis said.
SPLOST possible funding source
It’s not clear exactly where that $100 million would come from, and Cobb Chairman Tim Lee, who is behind the transit system proposal, said conversations are ongoing regarding that funding.
Before commissioners heard the funding breakdown Tuesday, Lee said discussions are taking place about the possibility for a special purpose local option sales tax referendum to appear on November’s ballot. Lee said projects to be funded under that SPLOST have not yet been finalized, but the county is considering another round of the tax because it’s the “prudent” thing to do.
A SPLOST is being collected now in Cobb and is set to expire at the end of next year.
Lee said it’s possible another round of SPLOST could help pay for the county’s share of the bus system, but that’s something a majority on the county commission would have to authorize.
“I think the SPLOST is a good mechanism for funding DOT expansion projects,” Lee said, adding it’s worth “taking a serious look at.”
Commissioner JoAnn Birrell, who is up for re-election in the May 20 primary, said she is planning to meet with the county’s transportation director and residents about the transit system.
Birrell expects it will appear on a list of potential SPLOST projects and doesn’t take issue with funding a public transportation system along Cobb Parkway with sales taxes — whether it’s the proposed bus-rapid-transit system, light rail or an express bus — because public hearings will be held on the project and voters will have their say.
“I have no problem with it going on the SPLOST list because, as you know, that will be voted on by the public,” said Birrell, who represents northeast Cobb.
Lee has said he’d like to see a six-year SPLOST voted on this fall. The referendum could be called as late as August.
Using dedicated lanes for Cobb, HOV in Atlanta
Ellis said his study found the transit system would have no significant impacts on Cobb’s environment.
Though the system is called bus-rapid transit, Ellis said the vehicle would not be like Cobb Community Transit’s large blue buses that transport residents now.
“The vehicle that was chosen is a rubber-tired vehicle, but it’s not a bus,” Ellis said.
The ride experience would be similar to the quality of light rail, Ellis said, with vehicles leaving every 8 to 12 minutes from level platform stations.
Customers would pay using a pre-loaded fare card.
“There would be some kind of Breeze card-like system so that you can tap it and get onto the vehicle and ride,” Ellis said, referring to the system used by Atlanta’s MARTA trains that allow customers to pay fare in advance.
Riders would board on both sides of the vehicles and would travel in a dedicated lane on Cobb Parkway with a special traffic signal allowing the system to bypass traffic.
Phase one of the project would connect Kennesaw to the Cumberland area through the proposed dedicated Cobb Parkway lanes. Travel would then continue, Ellis said, using Interstate 75’s HOV lanes.
“We’ll have no money spent in the city of the Atlanta except for some minor station renovations,” Ellis said.
System could be running in 2018
The transit system is not finalized and has not been approved by the Board of Commissioners. Lee said a vote could take place as early as June.
Ellis said the next step in the planning process is to receive a statement confirming no significant environmental impacts will be caused by the transit system from the Federal Transit Administration, which he said should be received in the coming months.
Preliminary engineering reports could be completed by early 2015, Ellis said, with right-of-way acquisition taking place in summer 2016.
Final engineering is proposed to take place in spring 2016, Ellis said, with construction beginning in summer 2017. The transit system could be open to the public by late 2018 or early 2019.
Cobb Community Transit already has 18 bus routes with a fiscal 2014 budget of $18 million. Of that, 33 percent is paid by passenger fares. The rest comes from federal grants and the county’s general fund budget.
The county outsources CCT operations to Lombard, Ill.-based Veolia Transportation, paying the firm $13 million annually. The county also employs seven people to run CCT operations.
By the numbers:
$494 million: The total cost of the proposed bus-rapid transit system connecting Kennesaw to Midtown
$242 million would come from U.S. DOT Federal Transit Administration
$152 million would come from ‘other sources,’ such as additional federal grants, Cobb’s cities and universities, community improvement district funds, naming rights revenue, potential public-private partnerships, and private organizations.
$100 million would come from Cobb County