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MARTA to study bus rapid transit on top end I-285 toll lanes

A schematic of the Georgia Department of Transportation's plans for toll lanes on the top end of I-285 and part of Ga. 400. (Image by GDOT.)

By John Ruch

The possibility of bus rapid transit (BRT) running on new top-end I-285 toll lanes will be studied by MARTA following a multi-government agreement signed on May 11.

The Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is in the midst of planning to add twin “Express Lanes” — Peach Pass-using toll lanes — to 285 between the east and west I-20 interchanges, as well as on part of Ga. 400, over the next 15 years. In 2017, Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst began convening officials from various top-end cities to discuss the possibility of adding transit services on or alongside those lanes. That effort has culminated in the study, which will include those cities as members of an advisory group.

GDOT and MARTA already have a separate agreement for BRT to run on the Ga. 400 toll lanes north of 285, though that remains in the planning stage with many details unknown. BRT refers to buses running in a dedicated lane, usually with limited stops, to make them as speedy as possible.

GDOT has said its toll lane design did not include transit but would not preclude its addition. The agency also has said it would allow transit vans and buses to use the lanes for free.

The agreement authorizing the study cautions that “GDOT is not guaranteeing that BRT will be constructed” and that the final decision on any transit component “rests solely with GDOT.” However, GDOT Commissioner Russell McMurry in a press release spoke strongly in favor of the concept.

“Transit along the I-285 corridor has to be part of our solution,” McMurry said. “This significant and historic opportunity for our region enables this crucial mobility expansion and Georgia DOT is eager to be part of the process.”

The study will include links to the existing Hamilton E. Holmes and Indian Creek MARTA Stations, according to the transit agency.

While a multi-government memorandum of understanding (MOU) laying out the deal was formally signed on May 11, the deal has been in the works for months. The MOU is dated as effective March 9, and a separate agreement between MARTA and the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority (The ATL) authorizing MARTA to lead the study is dated Feb. 7.

Signatories to the MOU include The ATL, MARTA, GDOT, the Atlanta Regional Commission, and Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties. Cobb and Gwinnett, through The ATL, are contributing money directly to the study. DeKalb and Fulton are not providing money especially for the study and originally were not included as signatories for that reason, but were added later after requesting to join, according to MARTA. And DeKalb and Fulton are MARTA members who pay into the transit agency, so they are already providing general fund money that will go to the study. Each signatory is guaranteed “access” to any transit service that may be built.

The approved process, according to the MOU, includes visioning, scoping, planning and a conceptual study “with associated public engagement and communications.” Details will include “station designs and transit vehicle movements, access points, and entry and exit ramps.”

The process will include two advisory “working groups,” one technical and one for policy. The Policy Working Group will include one elected official from the governments of Atlanta, Brookhaven, Chamblee, Clarkston, Cobb, DeKalb, Doraville, Dunwoody, Fulton, Gwinnett, Sandy Springs, Smyrna and Tucker; The ATL executive director or designee; the GDOT commissioner or designee; and the MARTA general manager/CEO or designee.

MARTA will contribute up to $14,284,307 in funding. The ATL will provide various amounts of funding, including $1,158,205 of federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) money for the Xpress commuter bus service. Transit-related ARP money is also coming from Cobb ($546,888) and Gwinnett ($213,645), which operate their own transit systems, via the ATL, which is the designated recipient of those funds. The ATL and those two counties collaboratively decided to spend some of their money on the study, according to an authority spokesperson.

Any unspent money will go back to those sources in a proportional amount, according to the MOU. If more money is needed, “good faith” discussions will follow about if and how to get it.

GDOT has divided the top-end toll lanes into several distinct projects with different phases for bidding purposes. The 285 section has three pieces, one of which confusingly includes part of Ga. 400. A request for proposals (RFP) for the 285/20 West interchange area is scheduled to go out later this year. The 285 East initial section is scheduled for RFPs next year, and 285 West in 2024. The separate Ga. 400 section is already in an RFP phase, with contractor selection expected next year.

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that DeKalb and Fulton counties are helping to fund the study in the sense that are members and funders of MARTA, and to provide more information about the Cobb and Gwinnett funding.

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