Yet Southeast Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott pointed out that there is no funding for such a project. Ott also points out that the county’s existing bus program is already subsidized $9 million a year to operate, meaning an expanded bus program would only increase that operating subsidy.
The Board of Commissioners received an update on the $1.8 million Northwest Corridor Alternatives Analysis study, which is recommending the $1.1 billion bus program, at its work session on Tuesday afternoon.
DiMassimo said the above timeline meant the county had to have the funding in place to pay for the program, which it presently does not, according to Ott.
“You could probably be under construction if everything went perfectly in maybe five to seven years,” DiMassimo said. “I wouldn’t think we would actually be up and running until maybe 10 to 12.”
DiMassimo asked Jim Croy, of Croy Engineering, who has spearheaded the study along with other consultants, what he thought.
“I think you’re right,” Croy said. “If funding was available today you’re talking seven to nine years and obviously there’s a lot of funding issues that still need to be answered.”
The study recommends bus service from KSU to Midtown, a 25.3-mile stretch, using routes along both I-75 and Cobb Parkway.
The proposal would use two kinds of bus service: express bus service, which are the buses the county currently uses for its CCT system; and bus rapid transit, which are buses that have the ability to carry more passengers.
Express bus service is intended for commuters who want to get from their homes to their jobs as quickly as possible. To that end, there would likely only be three stops along the way for that service utilizing Gov. Nathan Deal’s imminent reversible lane project on I-75.
The bus rapid transit system would have more connectivity with perhaps 20 stops along Highway 41, DiMassimo said.
Funding options include federal dollars, which could pay for up to half of the project, and a “menu of revenue opportunities from partners (e.g. educational institutions, parking fees, benefit assessment district contributions, public/private partnerships). Cost sharing with the City of Atlanta is being explored,” she said.
Before the county can apply for federal funds it needs to complete a $3 million environmental study of the project being conducted by Kimley - Horn & Associates, which should be complete in 18 to 24 months.
The cost of the buses only amounts to six percent of the total $1.1 billion proposed budget, with the largest portion of the costs in fixed guideway/bus lanes infrastructure improvements and grade separations, DiMassimo said.
Most of the cost comes from the infrastructure involved in building bus stations, a maintenance yard and parking. The proposal calls for “grade separations” at 12 intersections along Cobb Parkway, which involve installing a bridge or tunnel at an intersection to allow the bus to pass through traffic uninterrupted.
Some of the stations will simply be platforms. Others, like the one in the Cumberland CID, will likely be larger.
County Chairman Tim Lee thanked DiMassimo, Croy and the other consultants for their work.
“This region has benefitted significantly from its long term planning to make sure that we look out into the future, what’s next, what the potential to help guide us and make sure we’re as effective and efficient as we can be,” Lee said.
Lee referenced the $950 million, 30-mile Northwest Corridor project along I-75 and 575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties expected to open in the spring of 2018. The project will build two new tolled reversible lanes along the west side of I-75 between its interchanges with I-285 and I-575. The lanes will be separate from the existing interstate and carry traffic south during morning commute hours and north in the evenings. North of the I-575 interchange one new, reversible lane will be added in the I-75 center median to Hickory Grove Road, and a similar new lane will extend along I-575 to Sixes Road.
“The existing managed lane project that’s going to be started soon and completed soon as well was born so to speak through a study that’s over 10 years ago, so they do have long (shelf lives), they do get adjusted, they do get modified, and that’s just part of the process,” Lee said.
Ott said what stands out to him about the bus proposal is the financing.
“It’s always good to plan,” Ott said. “There’s a lot of things you plan. You look at future land use maps and other things, so it’s always good to plan — I’m not sure at the cost this plan is costing. Especially when there’s no financing for it.”
Ott pointed out that the box fare revenue only provides 50 percent of the funding for the county’s existing bus program.
“So you got to come up with the other 50 percent for the existing route right now,” he said. “The fact of the matter is once you build something to operate it you’ve got to be able to pay for it. We currently subsidize CCT on the order of $9 million in this year’s budget. … So $9 million from our existing CCT bus line and you have express bus service right now where fare box revenue that only covers 50 percent of the cost, and you want to expand it? So that immediately says you’re going to have an expanded supplement to CCT. So I have a problem with that.”
Ott said he doesn’t see this plan as doing anything more than collecting dust on a shelf.
“My personal opinion, more than likely,” he said.
Whereas the managed lane project will be maintained with tolls, the bus program doesn’t have that revenue stream, Ott said.
“The biggest expense with the managed lanes is construction, right-of-way acquisition and construction, and then from then on maintenance on the road,” Ott said. “That is going to be covered and can be covered by the toll. … That’s not really a subsidy for a managed lane. That is a user fee for the people who are actually going to use it. .. The difference with this is you don’t have fare box revenue or fares that are enough to cover the cost of operating it.”
Ott called for short term solutions to traffic relief rather than waiting for a plan a decade out that likely won’t happen anyway.
“I think what we should be doing as a board is looking at real traffic congestion relief in the short term, and yes, we can plan, but I think right now something that’s 10 to 12 years down the road does not solve the commuting problems people have today,” he said. “We’ve got to do some short term solutions not just planning on things that really we don’t have an identified funding source. Either setting up a grid network or alternative routes. We know what the traffic patterns are, so let’s look for short, easy, you know, the low hanging fruit to adjust the traffic congestion, and you can at the same time be looking at a more long term solution, but we’ve got to be dealing with existing conditions now too.”