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Council agenda: City Center and Northpoint LCI

Tonight’s Alpharetta City Council meeting has a handful of interesting items to follow, including City Center issues.

The first will be a proposal to add a Veterans War Memorial to the park in City Center. Tonight Council will likely change the master plan to allow for such a memorial. Design of the memorial and funding are still to be determined.

And the city will draft a second request for qualifications for development of the four outparcels at City Center. Alpharetta received interest last year from several developers but stopped the process shortly thereafter. This second, grouped effort begins again tonight.

Council is likely partially divided on the issue of allowing residential over retail in downtown. We’ll see if this issue comes up again tonight or if it will resurface once proposals are considered. Nevertheless this blogger thinks the votes are there to allow it to happen.

And finally, Council has a workshop agenda item to discuss the Northpoint LCI study. About a year and a half ago there seemed to be some interest in watering down this plan, perhaps reducing the densities it suggested. We’ll see if that interest is still present or where the conversation may lead.

This LCI plan sets aside land for the development of a MARTA transit station near the mall. If Council is truly serious about halting MARTA expansion into Alpharetta then they should remove this designation altogether.

Strings attached to North Fulton CID’s Blueprint 2.0

North Fulton’s Community Improvement District has created an update to their Blueprint plan. The self-taxing group of commercial property owners advocates, and in some cases implements, transportation projects in the area. Their blueprint 2.0 plan(opens to pdf) outlines projects they hope to work on over the next several years.

north_fulton_cidThe CID does some great work. Recently they finished the triple left turn lanes from Mansell Road onto North Point Parkway. A similar and much need project is planned for the GA-400 ramp to Windward Parkway. They’re also responsible for much of the new landscaping you see throughout the city.

But the CID should be carefully watched. Their leadership has deep ties to Georgia’s establishment transportation bureaucracy. Brandon Beach is the CID’s executive director. He’s a former Georgia DOT commissioner and sits on powerful transportation committees in the Georgia Senate. Atlanta Regional Commission chairman Tad Leithead also sits on the CID board.

CIDs are often used as local advocacy groups, providing the tailwind to get bigger projects moving. They can fund studies and create engineering plans, even on projects outside of their areas. These plans can then be picked up and funded by any of Georgia’s alphabet soup of transportation agencies (GDOT, ARC, GRTA, SRTA, etc).

An example might be transit stations in Alpharetta. The blueprint calls for transit stations at Encore Parkway and Windward Parkway. It was only a few months ago when Alpharetta’s Council was browbeating MARTA over plans to come here. Yet the same Council didn’t even mention the transit stations in the CID’s blueprint when presented to them two weeks ago.

If Alpharetta’s Council is serious about stopping MARTA expansion then they should push back on the CID when they plan for it! Or do they have the guts to challenge Brandon Beach? It’s doubtful.

The CID will hold an open house tonight at 5:30 at their office, 11605 Haynes Bridge Road. The public is invited to attend and provide feedback.

North Fulton’s CID does some great work but with strings attached. It’s important to carefully watch seemingly small transportation plans like this. Read between the lines and watch the process.

MARTA public meeting is tonight!

MARTA connect 400 logoOfficials from MARTA will hold a rare public input meeting TONIGHT at Alpharetta’s City Hall. The topic of the day – expansion of the heavy rail line from North Springs to Windward and the billions it will cost.

We talked last month about the sorry excuse for a study MARTA’s conducted thus far. Two weeks ago Alpharetta’s City Council seemed to agree, giving a tongue lashing to MARTA officials who spoke before a meeting. At issue was the lack of participation from Alpharetta residents. Unfortunately this may be one of the only remaining chances local residents have speak out.

The meeting will be in the Council chambers from 6:30 until 8:30. If you’re unable to attend you can watch the proceedings online at the city’s video portal. Citizens can also email opinions directly to MARTA using the email address connect400@itsmarta.com.

Regardless of your opinion of heavy rail expansion, please make your opinion known through one of these means. And if you’re at the meeting tonight, look for your favorite local blogger and introduce yourself!

MARTA’s Connect 400 survey is paltry, irresponsible

Today MARTA’s board will hear findings from the Connect 400 initiative. The study will present what they call the “Locally Preferred Alternative” for transit along the GA-400 corridor.

MARTA trainThe recommendation is for heavy rail. They want it built up the GA-400 right of way to Windward Parkway at an estimated capital cost of $2.6 billion.

I really wish I could be at the meeting today. No, I don’t want to speak out against heavy rail. I just want to see if these guys can make this suggestion and keep a straight face.

The study is making this recommendation after hearing from only 136 respondents. Somehow this miniscule sample size is enough to determine a local preference.

Let’s look at a few other recent public surveys to put this into perspective. Over 500 residents responded to the Highway 9 LCI study in Alpharetta and Milton. Approximately 400 responded to the survey for the Envision Main Street project.

Making changes to a few miles of Main Street is slightly less involved than bringing heavy rail to Windward. It’s probably on the magnitude of one one-thousandth the size actually. Yet Alpharetta managed to get more than double the number of respondents to their little study.

It’s laughable. MARTA representatives are willing to claim their have found the preference of north Fulton by talking to 136 people? Or was the decision preordained?

The study will hold only one additional public meeting before asking MARTA’s board for final approval. I’ll bet you a fist full of MARTA tokens that this meeting is scheduled during a weekday when typical working stiffs can’t come. Maybe it’ll be in the friendly confines of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce. That’s where the only Connect 400 meeting in Alpharetta was held.

I’ve not seen an independent, scientific poll on heavy rail preferences in north Fulton. My guess is that support for the project would be pretty evenly split. It’s a polarizing issue. It’s also an important one. That’s why it’s irresponsible to present such a poorly executed study like Connect 400. MARTA’s board should reject the study and insist on a deeper and more exhaustive survey.

And regardless of your opinion of heavy rail in north Fulton, be sure to ask your local city and county officials what they think. Municipal elections are coming. Candidates squirm when asked about MARTA heavy rail. It’s fun to watch.

MARTA studies rail expansion despite T-SPLOST’s rejection

Did you make it to the Connect 400 MARTA study meeting Thursday? Me neither. Like many in north Fulton, I was firmly ensconced in my cubicle. It should come as no surprise that the meeting, held during the middle of a work day, was attended mostly by Chamber of Commerce and Community Improvement District business leaders. Perhaps that was by design.

MARTA and GDOT board member Brandon Beach continue to plow forward with planning for transit in north Fulton. Apparently they didn’t get the memo dated July 31st. T-SPLOST’s resounding defeat was not just a rejection of funding, it was an indictment of transportation planners in this region. The voters simply don’t trust them.

Why then do the same distrusted planners continue to push for the same rejected projects using money that doesn’t exist? We shouldn’t be having this conversation right now. Heads need to roll in places like GRTA, the Atlanta Regional Commission, GDOT and elsewhere. Let’s begin to rebuild public trust in transportation leaders.

But until then MARTA will spend money on this study with a report due in the Spring. If you’re concerned about spending billions to bring rail up GA400 then you should let your voice be heard. Visit the Facebook page for the study and leave a comment. Or you can email your comments to MARTA’s Jason Morgan or Janide Sidifall.

For those on Alpharetta’s City Council, you have more options. The best way to fight rail expansion is to starve it of density. Refuse to add residential density and high-rise development along the GA-400 corridor. I’d also take a hard look at the Northpoint LCI study, which is on the city’s agenda to reexamine in the coming weeks. The plan favors MARTA rail expansion and even suggests setting aside land for a transit station. Several council members campaigned in opposition of MARTA rail expansion to Alpharetta, including mayor David Belle Isle and Jim Gilvin. Now’s the time to take action to stifle this project before it gains any more traction.

Photo credit: RTABus (creative commons)

MARTA’s GA-400 Meeting – January 26

It’s MARTA! Looks like they’ve quietly started planning for another meeting to discuss bringing high-capacity transit up the GA-400 corridor. They’ve got a study area defined as the highway from Sandy Springs to the Forsyth County line and a mile on either side. Oh and there’s also a consultant. Yay consultants.

The first kickoff meeting is Thursday January 26th, 6:30 pm at the Fulton County North Service Center, 7741 Roswell Road, Atlanta, Ga. 30350. Unfortunately I won’t be able to make this due to a prior commitment. The language on the MARTA webpage suggests that more meetings may be coming.

If you’re an opponent of transit expansion in Alpharetta like I am, then you should consider going to a meeting. And if you’re a politician who campaigned against MARTA (like say David Belle Isle or Jimmy Gilvin) then I’d certainly expect to see you working against this.

Here’s some links for your clicking pleasure:

An article in the Revue & News, the only mention I’ve seen thus far in the press.

MARTA’s webpage on the project:
http://www.itsmarta.com/north-line-400-corr.aspx

MARTA’s Facebook page on the project:
https://www.facebook.com/Connect400

 

Hammond’s New Ramp – A Cost Perspective

Yesterday the Georgia DOT opened two new ramps onto GA-400 at Hammond Drive. The opening marks the completion of a $17 million project begun in 2008.

Early in my career I spent a few years working at the Concourse office park, right next to the king and queen buildings. It was a miserable experience. Half my commute was spent on the surface streets of Sandy Springs before even getting onto GA-400. Oh how I would have loved this on-ramp back then.

Allow me to use this occasion to put the money into perspective. When you start throwing millions of dollars around, the scale tends to get distorted.

$17 million is going to go a long way towards helping traffic in Sandy Springs. It’ll also save a ton of time for many folks commuting there from north Fulton and Forsyth.

On the flip side, the proposed T-SPLOST would fund a MARTA extension to Holcomb Bridge at a staggering cost of $839 million. This is without factoring in cost over-runs, which are almost certain for a transit project like this.

How many projects on the scale of a Hammond Road project could be funded for that kind of cash? Nearly fifty if my math is correct. Would you like Rucker Road widened? How about Windward, Kimball Bridge, McGinnis Ferry or Highway 9? Pick about fifty of them to trade for a few miles of MARTA track.

Remember that the Dunwoody/Sandy Springs area already has four MARTA stations, yet their surface streets are hopelessly clogged morning, noon and night. For the small price of $17 million, thousands of cars will be removed from roads like Peachtree Dunwoody, Barfield and Abernathy.

There’s plenty of low hanging fruit left to be harvested. Let’s get to picking!

Photo Credit: Markhoward (creative commons)

 

“Why should we believe you people?”

It’s been interesting to watch the transportation sales tax initiative play out. A few items hit the news last week that I found significant. The first was this article in the AJC about north Fulton mayors and their strategy. Pay careful attention to Johns Creek mayor Mike Bodker. He’s politically positioning himself in the forefront of this issue. I believe Mayor Bodker sincerely wants transit in north Fulton. And like the rest of his peers, I believe he has a vendetta against the current MARTA leadership. I think his involvement in the transportation tax is a way to force himself into a position of authority on metro Atlanta transit. That’s good, except that if Bodker had his way we’d have expensive rail all over the place.

But back to the article. What’s significant about this story is that Bodker is backtracking on commuter rail. The ten year timeframe isn’t long enough to get plans off the ground. And since rail is so darned expensive, it would chew up most of the bond money. The mayors are starting to be more pragmatic, favoring roads over rail. I did a little cheer when I first read this.

The second story to note comes from the Alpharetta Patch and their coverage of a transportation town hall. This was a phone-in event with officials (including Bodker) answering questions. The article lifts up a caller who said, “Why should we believe you people?” The GA-400 toll and MARTA sales tax seem to be immortal despite promises to the contrary. It should come as no surprise that north Fulton taxpayers might feel this way. Will that translate into no votes for the sales tax? I predict a fierce battle between tax party activists and well-funded CID groups.

Downtown’s Parking Deck

And finally, in a somewhat unrelated story… Alpharetta recently hosted its first of four town hall meetings on the new downtown plans. I found it interesting that not one, not two but three different articles on the event all focused on one issue… the parking deck. Seems that this is drawing most of the negative criticism. I’d imagine city staff might be behind this parking deck idea yet it isn’t popular with the rank and file.

Parking decks are an urban feature, not something most suburbanites consider desirable. Off the top of my head I can only think of two parking decks in the city that are open to the public; Dillard’s at the mall and the Northside Hospital office buildings on Old Milton. The rest belong to cubicle dwellers in the office parks. I believe residents’ displeasure with public parking decks is a symptom of an overall opposition to urbanization.

Cobb County’s Transit Summit

Yesterday the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce hosted a summit titled the Metro Atlanta Northern Crescent Transit Summit. It was attended by most of the chambers of commerce and CIDs in the northern burbs, including North Fulton’s. Speakers from North Fulton included Brandon Beach and Johns Creek mayor Mike Bodker. The event doesn’t seem to be making a lot of news in Alpharetta.

I don’t have time to go into a full analysis of the event except to make a few points. First, Bodker continues to preach the virtues of transit in north Fulton and the dramatic land use changes that must first happen to make it a reality. Blogger Jimmy Gilvin has written on this topic before. The urbanization that must happen doesn’t take place in his city. How convenient.

Secondly, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory was a keynote speaker at this event. He discussed his city’s light rail system, called LYNX, which was put into place a few years ago. It is being heralded as a huge success, something that could pull jobs away from metro Atlanta. I see no mention in the press of the massive cost overruns the Charlotte project experienced or other criticisms of the system.

I also like the quotes from MARTA General Manager Beverly Scott in this article. She is absolutely giddy excited about bringing MARTA to the northern burbs of Atlanta. It is being heralded as “unprecedented” and “ground-breaking.”

Remember, MARTA will never come to Alpharetta. It won’t happen in our lifetimes. The river will block it. Suggesting that the urbanization of Alpharetta will attract MARTA is a conspiracy theory. All this is true, right?

Update: I found this article in the Marietta Daily Journal. It seems that taxpayer advocate Lance Lamberton, who spoke out against the plan, was forced to leave the event. That’s a great way to deal with criticisms of your plan. Kudos to the Daily Journal for printing this.

Number of the Month – MARTA Expansion Costs

Around the first of the month I publish the number of the month, a random bit of local trivia.

$150 Million

The cost, per mile, to extend MARTA’s heavy rail north line. To go the eleven miles from North Springs to Windward Parkway would cost approximately $1.6 Billion. Source: MARTA North Line Transit Oriented Development Study.

Light rail was estimated to cost between $40 and $100 Million per mile. Also keep in mind that these estimates were given five years ago. Just something to consider. I can’t wait for the day when politicians and policy makers attempt to justify this outrageous cost.

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