Monday, July 21, 2014

MARTA eyes North Fulton expansion

Posted By on Mon, Jul 21, 2014 at 3:43 PM

Clayton County isn't the only part of metro Atlanta that's considering an expansion of MARTA's footprint. Momentum is building for a rail expansion in North Fulton from Sandy Springs to Alpharetta along Georgia 400.

Last week, MARTA wrapped up a series of preliminary meetings about the plan at the Perimeter Center Hampton Inn, a location that highlights the clogged-artery traffic nightmare that is the I-285 and Ga. 400 interchange. At least 70 residents attended, and many appeared to favor the expansion provided that it happened on the west side of Ga. 400 through Sandy Springs. The east side of the so-called "Hospitality Highway" has more single-family homes and adjacent schools; the west side includes more apartment complexes and commercial strips.

The 12-mile extension along a dedicated path, known as "Connect 400," could feature up to six stations. While the current Red Line terminating in Sandy Springs is heavy rail, the extension could also be light rail or bus rapid transit. The current planning phase is seeking public input on that "locally preferred alternative," as MARTA planner Mark Eatman put it.

"It is what it sounds like, an alternative preferred by the people, by you," Eatman said.

The expansion is a long way from reality - six to 12 years away in the absolute best-case scenario. That timeline would require competitive federal funding to fall into place. In the nearly 15 years since the area Red Line stations were built, a previous extension plan floundered due to opposition and an economic study that found potential ridership too low to support the expansion.

But times have changed, and so has North Fulton. Eatman said that the area has seen changing demographics and growing mixed-income population that needs new transit solutions.

Late last year, MARTA nearly tanked this expansion by issuing a draft plan that featured an east-side line. The backlash against the route forced officials them backpedal to say anything's on the table, though it's unlikely the line can run down the middle of 400 as it does in Buckhead thanks to GDOT road expansion plans. But planners say the line might even run on the west side for part the way, then cross the road to the east.

MARTA touted a recent scientific survey from Kennesaw State University's Burruss Institute showing that more than 75 percent of North Fulton residents and employees support MARTA expansion there, and varying majorities backing some form of rail. The Sandy Springs City Council is supporting the concept so long as it hugs the west side of the highway. Elected officials and some residents have some reservations, however, about a possible Northridge area station that sparks traffic concerns.

David Centofanti, president of the Northridge Forest Community Association, has been organizing a coalition of various neighborhood groups about the issue for months. He tells CL his group is showing similar support for a west-side expansion. "I've talked to only two or three people who absolutely don't want it anywhere," he says.

State Sen. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, who serves as vice-chair of Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Overview Committee (MARTOC), the Gold Dome's committee on MARTA oversight, voiced grudging support to constituents at the meeting.

"I don't necessarily like it, either," he said, adding that transportation needs are growing and GDOT can't keep expanding Ga. 400 forever. "We're not gonna have a choice."

Millar predicted that bus rapid transit will be the eventual choice, because it's cheaper to build at an estimated $473 million versus $1.6 to $1.8 billion for rail options.

However, Millar joined a small group of residents who vocally criticized the process and the KSU survey, suggesting they were invalid or rigged. Despite the local support that CL heard at the meeting, Millar said he thinks the survey avoided talking to people in the Sandy Springs and Dunwoody areas who might oppose the line.

A few of those residents told CL that their concerns are rooted in the idea that today's well-off residents won't use MARTA, so it will essentially just enable an invasion of lower-class men and women. Ye olde MARTA-as-crime-creator raised its head, too.

"I think it's the lower-income people who are going to come up and start stealing," said one longtime Sandy Springs resident who declined to give her name. She blamed a break-in of her daughter's car on riders of existing MARTA service. She said she uses the train sometimes and would be OK with a west-side extension, but only if the transit agency first improves service and security in the existing system.

Meanwhile, as the MARTA expansion proposal gains momentum around the metro area, some of those lower-income communities might end up competing with North Fulton for expansion funds. Clayton County in November is poised to vote on joining MARTA and starting bus and eventually rail service. Depending on the many twists and turns of funding and planning, consultants and planners said, Clayton or some other project could end up in the running, too.

MARTA continues to accept public comments on Connect 400 at connect400@itsmarta.com.

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