Studies will include the feasibility of constructing a light rail system along the U.S. 41/Interstate-75 corridor that could link to the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority at the Arts Center station or possibly other MARTA stops.
Cobb Department of Transportation Director Faye DiMassimo said she expects grant funds to come in "some time within the next few months," and hopes to have all studies completed within 18 to 24 months, at which point the county would immediately seek federal dollars to begin construction.
DiMassimo said a light-rail system from the Cobb Galleria district to the Town Center/KSU district would likely cost $1.5 billion to $2 billion.
The grant is part of $27.5 million in Alternative Analysis grants awarded by the Federal Transit Administration. DiMassimo said the award is the largest granted in Georgia and one of the largest given out nationally. It will require a $340,000 match by the county, which the county has already budgeted for; however, DiMassimo said the county is working with other stakeholders such as the county's two community improvement districts and Kennesaw State University, to contribute to the match.
"This northwest corridor is going to set the stage for transit in Cobb County for the next decade," DiMassimo said. "People are tired of studies, and I understand that. But this Alternative Analysis will allow us to qualify for federal dollars for whatever project is determined should go there and is critically important."
Commissioner Helen Goreham said she supports using federal dollars to fund studies to determine if a rail system or any other transit system would be feasible in the corridor. But Goreham added that she has some doubts as to whether a rail system would be efficient, attract suitable ridership and actually relieve traffic.
"If it's not going to be used enough, it's too big and expensive of a project and I don't think we should go for it. But if we can get monies that can be used to let us know if it would or wouldn't work, I think we need to do that," Goreham said.
Though the study will look at a possible light-rail system, DiMassimo said, it will also study all alternatives for the corridor.
"This will look at the best options for alignment, technology and operating details, and once it is finished, it will position us to receive those federal dollars to help build it and allow us to move past planning and studying into implementing," DiMassimo said.
But the county has done several studies on the corridor throughout the years, with none of the studies ever amounting to construction. DiMassimo said that could be because of a lack of public support, political support, or the viewpoint that alternative transportation was not needed in a time of low gas prices and efficient roadways.
But those days are now gone, DiMassimo said, and other options are needed to keep the county's transportation system moving smoothly in the future.
"There are a couple of reasons why this is the right time. One, we're getting older, and people are looking for more options to get around. We're not building roads and creating additional capacity as easily as we once did, and people want to have another way to get from one point to another without necessarily driving. Second, the acceptance of a rail concept is growing. My suspicion is that over the last 10 years, you're seeing a lot of people moving here from the northeast or other places where transit systems are common and heavily used, and here, we don't have those options. Third, we've never really had to be highly mobile because new transit options weren't really a necessity. But as the county grows and gas prices go up, that is changing," DiMassimo said.
DiMassimo said the studies could also look at the possibility of using existing railroad lines in the county to create a commuter rail system along those lines, a proposal Commissioner Bob Ott said he favors over a newly constructed rail system along the U.S. 41 corridor.
"The first priority should be placing commuter rail on existing train lines," Ott said. "I think that dollar for dollar you get more for your money with the tracks already being in place, and it's a model that's done throughout the world. Clearly, the state has to work it out with CSX, but it's been done in other places in the country. The cost if you had to put commuter rail on 41 and build it all new, is enormous. With running light rail on existing rail lines, you would have to refurbish train stations and parking, and there are some state legislators that believe also that a lot of the small towns would have big economic boosts because their central business districts are already usually near the railroad tracks."
Ott said the state owns the rail lines and lease them to rail companies, such as CSX, and that the state is already in negotiations with CSX to determine if commuter rail could be an option. Ott said a commuter rail could come from Rome or Cherokee County all the way into downtown Atlanta and provide connectivity to the airport, something he felt was extremely important.
Newly elected Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said she supports a study, and that she has no reservations about a light rail system in the corridor, but that she would need to "delve more into the details."
Some of those details could include how the rail system would link to MARTA. Some proposals include linking up at one of MARTA's transit stations, such as Dunwoody, Lindbergh Center, Arts Center or Bankhead.
Chairman Tim Lee said he believes a rail system from Kennesaw to a proposed multi-modal station that could be built near the Georgia Dome in downtown Atlanta would work best, though he said the Alternatives Analysis would ultimately tell the county what option would work best and most efficiently.
Commissioner Woody Thompson was unavailable for comment.
The county has earmarked $2 million in the 2011 SPLOST project list to be used for transit studies in the corridor, though DiMassimo said that money would be used to perform environmental work to officially open the gateway to funding. DiMassimo said construction costs could also potentially be included in the Regional Transportation Act's list of projects, which would be funded by a 1 percent sales tax in 12 metro Atlanta counties - including Cobb - for 10 years, if approved by voters in July 2012. The light rail project could be operated by MARTA, but is not limited to the Atlanta rail system, DiMassimo said.
"There's been a lot of great work done, but now's the time to take that work and make it into something that will relieve congestion and provide options to residents for years to come," DiMassimo said.