When a 21-member regional roundtable of area leaders completed its project list last fall, members said the controversial light rail line had been replaced by a bus rapid transit route from Acworth to Midtown, which would be funded if voters in a 10-county region approve a 1 percent sales tax that is designed to raise $8.4 billion over 10 years. But Atlanta resident Baruch Feigenbaum, who completed a study for the Galleria-based Georgia Public Policy Foundation, said the math doesn’t add up.
Feigenbaum, a transportation policy analyst for the Reason Foundation, which like the Georgia Public Policy Foundation is a nonprofit think tank, said bus rapid transit lines are a cost-effective alternative to rail that can serve a larger area. But the Cobb project’s $695 million price tag raises a lot of questions, with Feigenbaum saying it could be built for about half the cost, particularly if it used planned, managed toll lanes on Interstate 75.
“Obviously there’s some desire in that corridor for light rail. The amount of money they have is an enormous sum of money for BRT,” he said. “So I guess I’d say I’m skeptical … Giving that much money to a BRT line, I think you’d have unbelievable buses that would not be a good use of taxpayer dollars.”
State Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) said the evidence points to the construction of light rail.
“I think they’re looking for a separate lane for only buses, which is more cost than it certainly needs to be, or it’s going to actually fund a rail line.” he said. “Or both — $700 million is unjustifiable.”
Cobb Department of Transportation Director Faye DiMassimo, who didn’t attend the breakfast event, said the cost of the bus rapid transit line in Cobb was justified, using the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s methodology to include costs for roadway and intersection operational improvements, queue-jumper lanes, signal pre-emption, buses, stations and platforms, parking and other items, as well as 10 years of operating costs.
“I am not certain what Mr. Feigenbaum’s estimates of costs were based upon,” DiMassimo said. “Ours was a detailed engineering estimate.”
Setzler maintains that building a light rail line would be a mistake.
“There’s not a single $100 million per mile rail line that’s being proposed that can’t be better served with buses for a tiny fraction of the cost,” he said.
Ashley Robbins, president of Citizens for Progressive Transit, points out that the project list calls for “fixed guideway” rail service between Cumberland and the MARTA Arts Center Station if additional funding is secured. She said she would prefer for rail to bus rapid transit along the route, which is now covered by the “packed to the brim” Cobb Community Transit bus Route 10.
“It accommodates a higher ridership and shows a larger investment in the community,” she said. “Despite the additional cost, it is really a significant investment and would really help spur redevelopment and growth on (Highway) 41.”
From the 17th-floor Georgian Club in the Galleria complex, the 80 attendees at Wednesday’s breakfast event could see the rush-hour confluence of Interstates 75 and 285, two roads that are among the more congested in the Atlanta area. Among the Cobb residents in attendance were chairman candidate Larry Savage, community advocate on transportation issues Ron Sifen, Cobb Planning Commission member Bob Hovey and Slade Gulledge of the Cobb Chamber.
During his 45-minute presentation, and a companion study released Wednesday, Feigenbaum said that bus rapid transit is a better option than rail for a city with Atlanta’s population density, which he said is the lowest of any metropolitan area of its size or larger in the world.
Feigenbaum, who formerly handled transportation issues for U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-Sharpsburg), even said that if Atlanta were to eliminate MARTA rail, it would only take 56 buses to pick up the slack. Compare that to Washington, D.C., which would require 1,385 new buses to replace its Metro rail system.
Yet, the vast majority of the TIA’s transit money would go to rail. In addition to Cobb’s line, a beltline streetcar project in Atlanta would get $600 million and another $700 million line would be built from MARTA’s Lindbergh Center station to Emory University. In addition, $533 million would go toward MARTA maintenance.
One questioner pointed out to Feigenbaum that the initial light rail line is basically a “foundation” that would eventually run from Kennesaw State University to Atlanta. But Feigenbaum said it actually makes more sense to start the line between Cumberland and Kennesaw and someday go south from there.
“Many of the people that live in that Cobb County corridor are actually commuting to the Perimeter or to the Cumberland area, not to downtown” he said. “So if I was going to be starting with a system, I would start with a system north of it, not south of it.”
Feigenbaum called into question the Atlanta Regional Commission’s findings that 18 percent more drivers would be able to reach their jobs in the Cumberland-Galleria area within 45 minutes if the transportation referendum passed.
“I think the 18 percent assumes a very high ridership on the rail line, which in Atlanta we haven’t had in the past,” he said.
Along with thinking that the 52 percent of TIA money set aside for mass transit is too much, Feigenbaum said the money could be better spent.
“By picking just a few really expensive light rail lines, we’re missing out on giving really high-quality bus rapid transit to everyone,” he said. “I don’t know why some people should be benefitting when really everyone can benefit.”
Feigenbaum also faulted the use of sales tax to raise transportation money, saying that gas taxes, toll roads, bonds and vehicle mileage taxes would be sources that require those who use transportation to pay more of their share, as opposed to the poor.
But ultimately, Feigenbaum’s report didn’t recommend voting for or against the TIA. While he finds the project list flawed, he said a “no” vote would mean that transportation problems wouldn’t be addressed for at least two more years, allowing the area to fall behind communities like Charlotte, Houston and Dallas. And regions that vote “no” would also see the Georgia Department of Transportation reduce its match for local projects from the current 90 percent to 70 percent.
“I can’t say it’s really good or bad, because there’s both on there,” Feigenbaum said. “I’m of two minds.”
Setzler, who proposed legislation this year that would have scrapped the TIA referendum and scheduled another election for 2014 using different methods for determining project lists, said what he heard Wednesday only confirmed his feelings.
“This project list is so flawed that if we invest $8 billion on these projects, we will condemn ourselves to never solve traffic in metro Atlanta,” he said. “If we take the one opportunity we have to raise revenue and misallocate it, Cobb County will never get out of traffic.”
Jim Stokes, executive director of the Livable Communities Coalition, said he is OK with the share of the money set aside for mass transit.
“Frankly, I think there ought to be more transit, but the project list is set and we’re supporting the project list,” he said.
Public policy foundation Vice President Benita Dodd said Feigenbaum performed the study “for us and with us,” but said it’s the foundation’s policy not to disclose “whether or what” it pays the authors of its studies.