ATLANTA — Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid joined the heads of three other metro Atlanta counties, along with regional and state transit officials, in signing on to a $16 million joint study to develop transit for the northern half of I-285 Wednesday morning.
Though the study will only be for engineering and design of the bus rapid transit (BRT) project spanning the perimeter, officials promised future generations would look back on Wednesday’s event as a “turning point” in transit infrastructure for the region.
“We know that our transit needs and commuting patterns don’t start or stop at various geographical, political, or current service area boundaries. Today’s historic multi-county, multi-agency partnership transcends these boundaries for the collective benefit of all travelers in our region,” said Chris Tomlinson, head of the Atlanta Region Transit Link Authority to the crowd gathered at the ARC’s downtown Atlanta office.
The project kicked off several years ago when the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) began eyeing bringing the I-75 express lane model to the “top end” of I-285 between Cumberland and Doraville.
As Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst recalled, however, there was no public transit component of that plan. Cities and community improvement districts along the “top end” undertook a series of studies exploring adding transit, settling on a BRT line that could take commuters from Cumberland Parkway to Northlake Mall in about 40 minutes.
Last year, GDOT announced it would shift the funding model for the express lane project to rely more heavily on private capital. The department said doing so allowed the project to be extended down to I-20 on Atlanta’s west and east sides while freeing up more public money for projects around the state.
The transit component is now envisioned as adding bus lanes to the express lanes, which would connect to stations across the “top end.” In Cobb, those include stations at Cumberland Parkway between Vinings and Smyrna and at Cumberland Boulevard near The Battery Atlanta.
Kim Menefee, director of the Cumberland Community Improvement District, said the group is still settling on a precise location for the Cumberland station near the Battery. The BRT line would extend southward to the H.E. Holmes MARTA station and eastward to Roswell Road in Sandy Springs.
Cupid, an advocate for increased transit connectivity in Cobb, said the county “is not on an island of itself. We are in a county that’s in a region, and the better that we are in the region, the better that we are as a county.”
She added, “It just goes to show just how important it is that we recognize our strength and value as a region. And speaking about ourselves as a region takes nothing away from Cobb, and I’m hoping that all of our residents will see that through this project that we have here today.”
The word “historic” was on the tip of everyone’s tongue Wednesday. Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts compared the signing to the passage of the original MARTA referendum in 1971 and the rebuild of the Atlanta airport in the late 1970s. Mayor Ernst predicted his “great-grandkids, or my great-great-grandkids” would similarly look back on Wednesday’s event with pride.
Added Dekalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, “I believe in the not too distant future, when the history of metropolitan Atlanta and the history of the state of Georgia is written, this day, this morning, this event, will stand out as a turning point in the history of our region and state.”
“Not too distant future” remains a relative term. GDOT’s latest estimates put the completion of the northwest and northeast express lanes at 2029 and 2032, respectively. A timetable for the full transit project hasn’t yet been announced.
Per a draft copy of the memorandum of understanding that Cobb commissioners approved in December, MARTA will pay for most of the study by contributing over $14 million. Cobb’s contribution, paid for with federal stimulus money, will be just shy of $547,000.