Cobb could save billion on buses by dodging BRT
by Ron Sifen
Columnist
April 11, 2013 12:00 AM | 2427 views | 10 10 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Does Cobb County need to figure out how to spend $1 billion? Or should Cobb opt for a $2 million alternative, and save taxpayers the other $998 million?

When government spends money, taxpayers need to ask some questions.

• What is this expenditure intended to accomplish?

• How much is this going to cost?

• Is this an appropriate allocation of our tax dollars?

• Are taxpayers getting a good (or reasonable) value for our money?

Cobb County is currently studying a $1 billion transit proposal, which includes

• Express buses operating in the approved-and-soon-to-be-built I-75 / I-575 managed lanes,

• Bus Rapid Transit operating in its own “barrier-separated” special lanes in the middle of Cobb Parkway, and

• 12 intersection grade separations.

Cobb already has successful bus service on Cobb Parkway. Do we need to improve this service? Perhaps. Do we need a billion dollar enhancement to our transit service on Cobb Parkway?

According to the AA (the Alternatives Analysis study), BRT will only cost $1 billion to build, as opposed to as much as $4 billion for light rail. And the AA exposes that BRT would only cost $6 million annually to operate and maintain, vs. up to $30 million annually for light rail. However, BRT is far more expensive than just increasing the frequency of existing buses.

If the only objective of this transit project were to improve transit service along Cobb Parkway, we could invest $2 million into doubling the frequency of the existing buses, and also running some additional buses that only stop at the major stops that have been identified along the BRT route. This $2 million investment would be a major upgrade from a transportation perspective, and would save taxpayers the remaining $998 million. It would also save millions in future annual operating and maintenance costs.

The other objective of the billion dollar transit proposal is to incentivize the redevelopment of private property. Cobb County has a Land Use Plan. Cobb is free to have its Land Use Plan allow high density mixed use development along this corridor. However, I continue to disagree with spending $1 billion of taxpayers’ tax dollars to incentivize the redevelopment of private property. I do not think this is an appropriate use of our tax dollars.

Future annual operating and maintenance costs for BRT would be much higher than just adding additional buses on Cobb Parkway.

• Will the extra millions of dollars for future operating and maintenance costs consume future funding that Cobb might have otherwise been able to use for other transportation needs elsewhere in Cobb?

• Will this misallocation of our financial resources take funding away from other needed services?

• Will this enhancement be so expensive to build and operate and maintain, that it will necessitate future tax increases?

One could also ask who are the special interests who would benefit / profit from the billion dollar plan, vs. a $2 million alternative that would do nothing more than to improve the existing transit service?

The BRT would operate in “barrier-separated” dedicated lanes, which would be built in the middle of Cobb Parkway. These barriers will block left turns into and out of existing businesses. This may adversely impact these businesses.

A large portion of the billion dollars will be spent on the “intersection grade separations.” (Grade separations means one crossing over the other.)

If these intersection grade separations were separating all north-south vehicular traffic from all east-west vehicular traffic, it would have had a huge benefit for reducing traffic congestion for everybody. However, these grade separations will cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build bridges for the buses to cross over these intersections.

Downtown city streets are designed to accommodate relatively slow-moving traffic, while also accommodating large amounts of pedestrian traffic. Cobb Parkway is not a city street. It is a major highway designed to allow fast-moving vehicular traffic to move longer distances. Is it realistic to try to convert the functionality of Cobb Parkway into the equivalent of a downtown city street?

BRT would operate entirely in the middle of Cobb Parkway. In order to get to the bus, every transit rider will have to cross to the middle of Cobb Parkway. And when the rider reaches their destination, they will again have to cross Cobb Parkway. Cobb promises to assure that this can be done safely. Can it be done safely, and conveniently, and at a reasonable cost, and not impede traffic flow on this major highway?

This project will not help to alleviate traffic congestion. Annual operating and maintenance costs will cost millions more than just increasing the frequency of the existing bus service. The existing bus service on Cobb Parkway could be significantly enhanced for $2 million, and therefore save taxpayers the other $998 million.

Does the billion dollar plan give taxpayers good value for our money?

Ron Sifen is president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition.

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Comments
(10)
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N Cobb
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April 16, 2013
Good work Ron. I hope you keep an eye on the new consultant folly being done by DOT. I heard Commissioner Goreham mention it in her Town Hall. Just what we need, more meaningless transportation studies telling us the obvious.
Fred Lemons
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April 12, 2013
Oh my. The developers must really have their hand in the government. Spend a billion so the developers can build more

and increase the density of business, people, cars, and pollution?

Why not work the other way. Limit developers, put a cap on any future development.Compensate property owners for their losses

from selling to the developers. Make green space.

Save Cobb County from becoming like other overdeveloped

counties.

Actually, think of a nicer, better quality of life for Cobb.
LMFDuke
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April 12, 2013
Ron, thanks for your usual commitment to detail, especially detail that involves tax dollars. Our transportation custodians seem stuck on the idea of providing re-devlopment for designated areas rather than enhancing the existing flow of traffic. I grew up in the northeast and used mass transit almost exclusively. In certain geographical areas it makes sense, in others it doesn't. Greater metro Atlanta may well fall into the latter category. Smaller, more fuel efficient buses -- perhaps running more frequently on the high traffic routes and on the existing highway ought to be a serious consideration.
This is crazy
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April 12, 2013
I am not in favor of any more taxpayer subsidy of transit, however I could stomach $2 million as an alternative to a BILLION. Sifen raises great points about subsidizing development of private property and about pedestrians on Cobb Parkway.
D. Lee Brown
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April 12, 2013
Ron,

Your points and observations are always a welcome light on a subject the too often seems purposefully obscured by the real beneficiaries, namely the contractors, developers, Chamber Members needy of cash flows and access to the Treasury, e.g., our money, and politicians all too eager to please. The point was made with the public's rejection via the T-SPLOST vote which was a howling signal that the pay-for-play game is OVER.

Your service, Ron, to keep those honest who have a sworn oath to serve but who forget WHOM they serve is invaluable. Why can't elected officials do it, too? Oh, as I said above. Serve whom? If they keep forgetting, we voters will remind them.

Thanks for your alert.

D.L. Brown

SW Gal
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April 12, 2013
Ron, thanks for providing details on this plan. You have done an outstanding job in laying out the facts so that Cobb taxpayers can have a say. It is quite upsetting to see a large Cobb bus with only one or two riders on it, which is the case 90% of the time. What about smaller more fuel efficient buses that cost less and require less road? Citizens are tired of seeing more unnecessary concrete raised medians, tearing up perfectly good sidewalks to add unrequested wider sidewalks and "traffic calming" items being added to our streets along with "landscaping" that does nothing to add more usable lanes to our roads. These unjustified expenses at a time most people are struggling to make ends meet and when our schools and other basic services need those dollars is total WASTE (a transfer of our wealth to the political cronies making the "campaign donations" to our elected officials.) Please STOP the insanity.
David W
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April 11, 2013
Some very good points, Ron.

The development folks would like to see a fixed guideway system which would allow adjacent property values to be set at a premium. It doesn't seem that premium would be a wise investment for the average Cobb tqxpayer.

A lot of the cost built into the BRT estimate is for the grade separations, some of which may be warranted for both bus system options. How about installing half the number of grade separations at only the most effective locations in combination with expansion of the existing bus system? That would reduce congestion while improving the flow of the buses while retaining the route flexibility and economy of the regular buses.
frogbreath
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April 11, 2013
In this day and age, we should be investing in hover crafts instead of buses. Maybe we can lay an arc of steel rails overhead and call it light rail?? Oh, wait, they have done that, it's called Marta. Never mind!!
Pat H
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April 11, 2013
Great column Ron. Specific details are important and we do not get them from the DOT - they just throw millions and billions around without justification for the need to spend this money.

We do not need curbs at intersections that damage tires and are impossible to see at night, we do not need jumbo sidewalks with bricks and we do not need this bus service. Instead we need to curtail the buses that are running around with only a couple of people on board.

I wish someone would look into the money collected for our streetlights and sewer fees to insure they are used for the stated purposes.
John M
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April 12, 2013
I agree...let's spend $1-2 milion or even a little more...but NOT a billion...to really improve our (mass) transportation--extra buses/routes, but particularly smart traffic lights (that favor rush hour traffic directions), reversible lanes (or fixed one ways with timed traffic lights, etc., etc. [Also study/improve problem intersections & on/off-ramps that currently tie up traffic.]

John M
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