A network of road lanes dedicated to buses and shuttles is a main new proposal in a “Last-Mile Connectivity” study for Perimeter Center, whose rough-draft ideas were presented at a Jan. 26 open house at the Northpark Town Center complex in Sandy Springs.

The study by Gresham, Smith and Partners was jointly commissioned by the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts and the cities of Brookhaven, Dunwoody and Sandy Springs. It began last summer and the team aims to present a final report by March. Much of it is a housekeeping effort to create a plan-of-plans consolidating dozens of previous planning documents. But it is also putting forth some new ideas, like the dedicated, or “managed,” bus lanes.

Maggie Maddox of the planning firm VHB explains the concept of dedicated lanes for alternative transportation at the Jan. 26 “Last-Mile Connectivity” study meeting at Northpark Town Center in Sandy Springs. (Photo John Ruch)

The idea, said planning team member Erin Thoresen, is figuring out “how to consolidate projects or kind of blend them together,” as well as kill old ones that “just don’t make sense anymore.”

Dunwoody Mayor Denis Shortal was among the audience members. In an interview, he said the “limited lanes” in Perimeter Center makes him question the dedicated lanes idea, but he wants to hear more information and says the area needs more transportation options.

“I believe that mass transit is going to have to be part of the answer,” Shortal said.

The “last-mile connectivity” of the study title refers to getting commuters out of cars by making sure it’s easy to get from mass transit stops to local destinations across the gap of the “last mile” or whatever the distance may be. That connection could take any number of forms: another type of transit, a sidewalk, a multi-use trail, a taxi.

In addition, Thoresen said, the planners decided to broaden the study scope to include improving Perimeter Center’s regional transportation options to nearby neighborhood centers or “nodes.” Those areas include Sandy Springs’ City Springs, the Brookhaven/Oglethorpe MARTA Station area, and Dunwoody’s Dunwoody Village and Georgetown.

Thoresen said the team reviewed more than 60 existing city and PCIDs plans, then focused on more than 40 of them containing more than 600 individual transportation projects. Many are overlapping or competing; as one example, she said, they found “at least eight different projects planned for Hammond Drive.”

The study’s main goals, she said, are creating a “unified project list” and a look at “opportunities to introduce transit into the area.” To help prioritize projects, it will update cost estimates for projects and suggest funding sources, which are likely to involve both public and private money.

The list will include not only actual infrastructure projects, Thoresen said, but “also policy recommendations and strategies” for alternative transportation. And the study will include placing all of the projects into a single mapping system that all of the cities can use.

Thoresen said the study will include proposing or reviewing “corridor studies” for several specific key streets, such as Hammond Drive and Glenridge Drive.

The big new piece is the dedicated lane system for private shuttles, MARTA and GRTA buses, and maybe even cars hired via taxi services like Uber and Lyft. Those lanes would act as a circulator system through a grid mostly in the business center along Peachtree-Dunwoody Road, but also venturing into such areas as Pill Hill and Brookhaven’s Perimeter Summit. The lanes might be limited to such vehicles only during peak hours and usable by regular vehicles the rest of the time.

A similar idea was recently proposed in Sandy Springs’ “Next Ten” land-use planning, which has a sub-plan for that city’s piece of Perimeter Center. It included dedicated transit space that could be a bus, but also included the possibility of a streetcar or more exotic options such as a monorail. The “Last-Mile Connectivity” study has discarded rail options as expensive and focused on buses, though the right of way might remain.

Tochie Blad of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods asked how the planners would handle the differences in the cities’ policies and guidelines on border-crossing projects. Thoresen acknowledged that’s a “fundamental challenge of the project….one jurisdiction’s priority is not [necessarily] going to be another jurisdiction’s priority.”

Joe Seconder of the advocacy group Bike Walk Dunwoody said in an interview that recommendations should start with “carrots and sticks” to encourage people to not use cars.

“Until you change the policies and/or laws, I wouldn’t spend a dime on infrastructure. Otherwise, you end up with the Atlanta Streetcar,” he said, referring to the downtown Atlanta streetcar that has had low ridership since opening in 2014.

Shortal said that traffic tie-ups related to the upcoming I-285/Ga. 400 interchange reconstruction project could be an opportunity to encourage mass transit use.

“Maybe the inconvenience of riding in your car will get to a point where enough people will say, ‘This is a pain. I’m going to ride the bus,’” the mayor said.

Whatever the final recommendations are, Shortal said, the cross-border collaboration is important. He pointed to another such effort, the Peachtree Gateway Parternship, where Dunwoody, Brookhaven, Chamblee and Doraville are jointly planning a multi-use trail network. One new concept recently floated in that group, Shortal said, is trail on North Shallowford Road under I-285.

“You can’t say, ‘I’m Dunwoody’ or ‘I’m Brookhaven’ or ‘I’m Sandy Springs and I’m in my own little world,’ because we’re all in this together,” Shortal said.

While the study aims to coordinate city plans, it does not have its own website, instead directing residents to the local sites of Brookhaven, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs and the PCIDs. Attendees were invited to email their ideas for the three highest and three lowest priority connectivity ideas to KWescott@sandyspringsga.gov by Feb. 3.

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