Cauldron of proposed transportation projects is a challenge to monitor, even for experienced policy makers

By David Pendered

So many big transportation proposals for metro Atlanta are in the cauldron that even some top policy makers have trouble keeping pace.

As GRTA board member John Sibley III said of one region that has two major projects planned and a study underway: “I have a problem seeing what is likely here.”

Northwest Corridor, GDOT plan

Reversible lanes would be installed on I-75 and I-575 under a plan released by Gov. Nathan Deal. Credit: GDOT

Sibley got his questions answered about the I-75 and I-575 corridor, in Cobb and Cherokee counties. However, the answers prompted his colleague, Dick Anderson, to wonder aloud about the campaign message for the July 31 sales tax for transportation.

“I know the advertising is about: ‘These projects for these dollars,’” said Anderson, vice chairman of the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

“But there’s a bigger story. We are making a major shift in investment to optimize 75, and in addition are building a transit investment,” Anderson said. “This is an example of the necessity of understanding all the moving parts … and if not told, it becomes confusion.”

The Northwest Corridor is, indeed, a prime example of the “bigger story” that’s at the heart of the sales tax proposal to fix roads and provide transit in the 10-county metro Atlanta.

In just this one corridor, more than $1.64 billion worth of highway and transit projects are planned – a highway project proposed by the state, and a bus system to be paid for with proceeds of the proposed transportation sales tax. Adding to the brew is the independent transit planning study now being conducted by Cobb County.

The bus plan, priced at $695 million, involves an enhanced bus service between MARTA’s Arts Center Station and a future station in what’s called the Acworth/Kennesaw/Town Center area.

Northwest Corridor transit proposal, funded by sales tax

This is the route of the bus system that would be installed if voters approve the proposed transportation sales tax. Credit: ARC

The highway project, tagged at $950 million, is a planned reversible-lane system that Gov. Nathan Deal unveiled last week. For this project along I-75 and I-575 to launch, a private-sector partner would have to pony up from $95 million to $190 million, according to the state’s plan.

But the Northwest Corridor is more complicated than that.

Consider Cobb County politics. The bus service initially was envisioned as a light rail network. But after a flurry of protests in Cobb last year, the planned light rail system was replaced by enhanced bus service. The extra money that had been carved out for light rail, but not needed for a bus system, was redirected to roadway improvements.

Meanwhile, Cobb County officials in August began work on their own analysis of the impact transit could have on the area flanking I-75 and U.S. 41. This process, which is completely independent of the projects to be funded if the sales tax is approved, has been underway for years in various forms.

Meanwhile, another big picture project involves the extension of MARTA’s heavy rail system.

This route would seem to be a plain vanilla project. Priced at $700 million, the line would connect MARTA’s Lindbergh Station with a new station near Emory, to serve the campus and the burgeoning health complex and related developments nearby.

However, the long-term vision is more complicated. Presuming the line toward Emory is built, and additional construction money can be found, the Clifton line eventually would be extended to serve the DeKalb Medical Center and connect with MARTA’s East-West line at the Avondale Station.

But don’t stop here.

MARTA’s board has added an additional extension of the East-West line. This one, also unfunded, is said to be an early favorite of federal transit officials.

This route would extend MARTA’s existing line from its end at Indian Creek Station and turn it south toward I-20, then bend east and continue along I-20 to a new terminus station at Mall at Stonecrest.

All these projects are dependent upon construction funding that is still just a glint in the eye.

Going back to the bus line planned for the Northwest Corridor, GRTA board member Al Nash put that project in perspective in a brief exchange with Faye DiMassimo, director of Cobb’s Department of Transportation.

Nash: “If I were a Cobb County resident, what difference does it make if the [sales tax resolution] passes or doesn’t pass?”

DiMassimo: “If it passes, we’ll build something. If it doesn’t, we won’t. We won’t have money to build or to seek federal funding.”


About David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with nearly 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.
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The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia

Cobb County Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Lee met with members of the predominantly black, transit-supporting GCC (Georgia Community Coalition) last week and in his comments, seemed to strongly indicate that the decision has already been made by the powers-that-be to use the $689 million of Cobb T-SPLOST money alloted to the project entry for "Enhanced Premium Transit Service" in the I-75/US 41 corridor to build HOT Lanes.


Courtesy of the website "Wingcom Watchdog" (WW):

"Lee said it would take approximately $4 million to reactivate bus service on those routes. Lee informed the group that light rail was too costly to  construct, that the decision had already been made, and the new plan would use  taxpayer monies to construct a reversible lane system instead."


If they build the HOT lanes, which seems like a done deal, it would only make sense for the "enhanced" bus service to use the HOT lanes.    So how in the world do they figure it takes $695 million dollars to build some bus stops, a maintenance yard, perhaps a couple que jumper lanes and buy some buses?  


They don't.  They are going to use the majority of that $695 million to try to get federal money for light rail.   If they don't get the Federal Money or perhaps if their are cost overuns they could under the language of the enhanced transit description use the funds to on the HOT lane since since the HOT lane will also be the ROW for the "enhance bus service"


Alternatively if the TSPLOST doesn't pass we will still have the HOT lanes which will improve bus service in the corridor. 

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia


 With as many times as the state has backed out of the project and the I-75 HOT lanes proposal has repeatedly fallen through, not-to-mention the lack of popularity of the HOT lane concept in these parts, I wouldn't assume that the I-75/575 HOT lane project is a done deal until I actually see the bulldozers break ground and see the structures on which the HOT lanes operates rise from the ground and become operational.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia


 Do you know how many times the I-75 HOT Lane project has gone out to bid over the last decade in various shapes and forms?


At one time, back in the early-to-mid 2000's, the original proposal for the I-75/575 HOT Lane project was to add eight additional lanes to the I-75 right-of-way (four tolled truck lanes and four tolled carpool lanes with multiple Bus Rapid Transit stations on I-75 & I-575 between the I-285 NW Cobb Cloverleaf interchange and Canton).


The state backed away from the original proposal back in 2006 after objections by residents and businesses lining the route that I-75 was going to be as much as 25 lanes wide in some places (that kind of proposal works in a place like Houston where there is plenty of right-of-way available to widen a road, but not necessarily in Georgia where most of our urban freeways are extremely right-of-way limited).


Driving the objections to the original HOT lane proposal (officially titled I-75/575 NW BRT/HOV) were concerns that the proposed width of the road after adding eight more lanes and BRT stations and parking areas would have consumed some very valuable industrial and commercial land that makes up a very large and significant portion of Cobb County's tax digest that would have severely harmed the county's finances if those businesses were forced to relocate out-of-county due to the widening of 75 to accommodate the extra lanes.


Also leading to the state to back away from the original proposal was the objection of the trucking industry, which has a lot of influence in Georgia politics, of trucks being forced to use tolled truck lanes as well as concerns by transit interests that the BRT line on I-75 in the middle of a 20-lane freeway isn't all that appealing to pedustrian traffic or inspiring walkable-transit friendly development that would help change auto-dominated land-use and transportation patterns for the better over the long run.


Here's a link to the original I-75/575 HOT lane proposal that included Bus Rapid Transit and widening I-75 to as many as 25 lanes:


And here's a link to the most updated I-75/575 NW HOT lane proposal:


 @The Last Democrat in Georgia Yes the original plan was not very realistic.   and the subsequent plan I think probably had problems because of the blow back on 85 and investors not wanting to give up control if it was done with more private money.  


Interesting if they can't even get a bare bones 2 lane HOT lane built, granted elevating it sounds expensive.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia


 Also, the private companies wanted the state to pay much more to enter the partnership, close to $500 million, when the state was only "prepared" (I say that word lightly) to pay $300 million to enter the partnership to build the lanes.

The Last Democrat in Georgia
The Last Democrat in Georgia


 The Public-Private Partnership (P3) portion of the project was cancelled by Governor Deal because any contract that the state would have entered into with a partnering private company to build, operate and maintain the lanes would have severely restricted the state's ability to make improvements and upgrades to parallel routes for up to the next 70 years.


Under the terms of the P3 contract, if the State of Georgia would have wanted to make improvements to parallel routes (like US 41/Cobb Parkway and the CSX-W&A and GNRR freight rail lines in particular), the state would have to pay a huge financial penalty, possibly in the hundreds-of-millions of dollars (an amount likely equivalent to the state's entire roadbuilding budget for one fiscal year) to the partnering company in addition to the amount that the state would have to pay to fund the improvement projects on those parallel routes.