ALBANY -- A planned multimillion-dollar bus transit center in downtown Albany could begin construction as early as next year, state and local officials said Thursday.
The facility, billed as one that would serve as a hub for intra-city bus service as well as rural and regional bus transportation, taxi service and private pickup and drop-off service, is currently undergoing a revision of an environmental assessment that was completed and approved by the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Federal Transit Authority, only to be rescinded last year, following complaints from two local residents.
Speaking during an informational meeting at Isabella School in East Albany, state and local officials, along with environmental engineering consultants, explained the project and fielded questions from roughly 15 people at the 1:30 p.m. meeting and five more at the 5:30 p.m. meeting.
Erik Steavens, the director of the Georgia Department of Transportation's Intermodal Program's Division, said DOT was reaching out the public on this project in an effort both to educate and to get input from the community on various aspects of what he described as a showcase transit project.
"We're reaching out to the community to let them know what the project is, and what it isn't," Steavens said. "This project will be one of the premier transit facilities in the state and will be built in a way that uses renewable and recyclable fixtures and high-efficiency elements. It's going to be a showcase facility for transit in the state."
But some in the community still have some reservations.
John Sherman, a local developer who has property on Washington Street that would back up to the proposed site, got the project stalled when he wrote the Federal Transit Authority last year contending that the initial environmental assessment that had been approved by both the state and federal authorities, was flawed.
Upon review, the FTA rescinded the Finding of No Significant Impact and sent the city back to the drawing board to revise the environmental assessment.
Sherman provided Georgia DOT, the city and the consultants on hand with a list of questions Thursday that he would like answered about the project, including ones centered on the proposed use of rail spurs lines, the site selection and who actually was running the project.
There does appear to be some confusion publicly about who is in charge of the project.
At a Jan. 26, business meeting of the Albany City Commission, City Manager Alfred Lott told the commission that "the project is being managed and primarily funded by the state with additional funding from the FTA," but in an interview before Thursday's meeting, Steavens said the project was entirely that of that of the city of Albany with DOT merely providing assistance and serving as a conduit to FTA.
"There is no confusion in our eyes," Steavens said. "It's the city's project ... with their project manager David Hamiliton. We're here to provide technical assistance and to be that conduit between them and the FTA."
Hamiliton, who is the city's transportation planner. says that the waters have been muddied a bit, but says that the delineation of responsibility is clear among those involved.
"When Mr. Lott was speaking to the commission, he was referencing the current environmental assessment," Hamilton said. "We are in charge of the overall multimodal project, but the GDOT is in charge of the environmental assessment and work."
In terms of the ire drawn by the oft-referenced rail portion of the project, Steavens said that multimodal projects contains no plans for rail service either regionally or intra-city, but that the site selection for the project did consider a long range GDOT Rail Plan that incorporates Albany.
"We (GDOT) want to see robust transit in the state both in terms of highway and rail service," Steavens said. "But transportation planning must often be done looking 20, 50, sometimes 100 years in the future. ... There is a passenger rail vision in that long-range plan and Albany is included in that vision."
Some who attended the meeting Thursday afternoon voiced support for the current transit hub downtown -- an interim site occupying the Greyhound bus terminal three blocks south at Oglethorpe Boulevard and Jackson Street. Until the late 1990s, the city transit center was located at Pine Avenue and Front Street before moving behind the Civic Center and then to the Oglethorpe site.
"It's convenient where it's at," Yvette Caseman said. "We need buses and better service more than we need a new multimodal center."
That sentiment was echoed by Dougherty County Commissioner Muarlean Edwards, who said the people who use the system the most would be the ones who would be most affected if the center relocates.
"I think they need to improve on what they got before they go trying to get something new," Edwards said.
Consultant Todd Hill countered that the intent of moving the facility was rooted in the issues associated with cramped and unsafe conditions at the current facility.
"You have buses that are having to back out from cramped areas into the driveway used by cars and where people are walking at the terminal," Hill said. "It's just not safe and wouldn't support growth."
Greyhound terminal owner Orlando Rambo, who is lobbying the city to consider staying at the current site, said that he is in talks with Heritage Bank administrators to possibly buy the bank property at the corner of Oglethorpe and Jefferson with the idea being he could then turnaround and sell the entire block to the city, providing a larger area for development and keeping the location the same.
"Nothing's been finalized," Rambo said. "It's just something that would be an alternative to the current site should the city want to consider that."
Janice Route-Blaylock, spoke with the consultants Thursday about what effect the center may have on residential neighborhoods in the blocks just north of Roosevelt.
"I just wanted to ask if that was something they had considered, or if they had just looked at the impact on commercial business," Route-Blaylock said. "I live on Washington and if this thing comes there will -- good or not -- be more foot traffic and frankly I'm concerned about more crime coming into the area."
City officials say that data show ridership on the city's bus system is up. In 2009, the city transported 1,500 more riders than in 2008. There were a total of 9,500 individual riders in 2009 and, for the first two months of the year, ridership is trending upward, Assistant City Manager James Taylor said.
In total, six people offered up questions to be included in the record and answered by officials.
A public hearing will likely be scheduled for April following the release of the environmental report, which should be made available to the public in the coming weeks, Hill said.