A master strategy of expanding transit through higher-speed bus routes – including on Ga. 400 and major Sandy Springs streets — gained consensus support from Fulton County commissioners and mayors in a Jan. 29 meeting. The decision could mean a sales tax funding request as soon as next fall, and it readies the county for possible new transit funding or governance coming out of the state legislature this session.

Mayor Rusty Paul.

Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul said in a written statement that he supports the bus approach. “It’s the least costly, fastest-implementable solution,” he said.

Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts also welcomed the agreement, adding that it has “a couple of caveats” on such details as funding.

“I’m very excited about the agreement and consensus, and it looks like we’re heading the right direction,” Pitts said.

The agreement follows months of meetings and other input on the Fulton Transit Master Plan. The 40-year plan envisions a county-wide mass transit for major corridors. It includes all Fulton cities except the biggest: Atlanta, which already has a massive MARTA expansion coming thanks to a sales tax increase approved by voters in 2016.

There are a couple of bus options. One is “bus rapid transit,” meaning high-capacity buses running in dedicated lanes. Another is “arterial rapid transit,” which means buses running in regular street lanes with other traffic, but techniques for faster service, including fewer stops, dedicated pull-overs and the ability for traffic signals to turn green for the buses.

So-called heavy and light rail transit were also options in the area, and local resident input particularly favored extending the current Red Line heavy rail along Ga. 400. The use of buses does not preclude rail from coming in the future.

The Fulton consensus plan includes bus rapid transit on Ga. 400 from North Springs MARTA Station northward, and arterial rapid transit on Roswell Road and the Abernathy Road/Johnson Ferry Road corridor, Paul said.

“I think it is the best solution going forward, and these elected leaders will continue working on plans and refining costs estimates, but it clearly will be significantly less costly than either rail solution,” Paul said.

Fulton County Commission Chairman Robb Pitts.

Bus transit would still require many millions of dollars, likely with funding from several sources. One long-discussed component is a sales tax. An unsettled point among the commissioners and mayors, Pitts said, is whether to seek a sales tax that runs for 40 years, similar to MARTA’s current model, or one with “no cap in perpetuity.”

Pitts said the next step is for Fulton leaders to explain the transit priorities to state transportation officials and the county’s delegation in the General Assembly. “And hopefully they will take it up and get the ball moving,” Pitts said, including seeking sales tax funding “as soon as possible.”

An overarching concern for any kind of transit along Ga. 400 is the Georgia Department of Transportation’s reconstruction and expansion of the I-285/Ga. 400 interchange. A future extension of that work over the next several years would add dedicated toll lanes, taking up further right of way and possibly limiting lane access for buses. Paul and other Sandy Springs leaders raised concerns about that with GDOT officials at the Jan. 23 City Council Retreat, where the state officials said they were talking with MARTA about ways to retain room for bus rapid transit from North Springs Station in their designs.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from Fulton County Chairman Robb Pitts.