Wait on $1B BRT, watch Braves’ experiment with MAGLEV
by Ron Sifen
August 31, 2013 11:25 PM | 2942 views | 15 15 comments | 50 50 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Should Cobb promote economic development by impairing the public’s access to hundreds of businesses? Should Cobb County spend more than a billion dollars to try to add lots of pedestrians along a major high-speed U.S. highway?

Cobb is spending $5 million on studies to support building a $1.1 billion bus rapid transit (BRT) system on Cobb Parkway (U.S. 41).

Cobb voted 69 percent against the TSPLOST last summer. Cobb voters realized that the $1.1 billion dollar Cobb Parkway transit project to be built by the TSPLOST would do little to improve transportation in Cobb, and was really about using our tax dollars to incentivize the redevelopment of private property.

Cobb is also separately spending $1.4 million to update its Comprehensive Transportation Plan (CTP). The CTP is expected to have the billion dollar Cobb Parkway BRT as its centerpiece project, even though the BRT study has not yet been completed.

(On a 3-2 vote, commissioners recently voted against spending an additional $368,000 on a marketing campaign to try to “educate” people into supporting the billion dollar boondoggle.)

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves and MARTA are apparently collaborating with Tony Morris of Powder Springs-based American Maglev Technologies (AMT) to build a “maglev” train from the Georgia State MARTA station to Turner Field.

Cobb has previously rejected maglev as “unproven.” If the Braves actually move forward with the maglev project, and if it is successful, this 21st century technology will have taken a major step toward becoming a proven technology. (There will still be some legitimate questions to be addressed.)

If the Braves maglev project is successful, that will become an appropriate point in time for the Federal Transit Administration to begin funding new 21st century technologies that would be significantly less expensive to build, and dramatically less expensive to operate and maintain.

AMT’s product is fully automated, and they tell us it could cost-effectively provide service every 5 minutes.

It should not be taxpayers’ burden to have billions of our tax dollars allocated to incentivizing the redevelopment of private property. Transit should be part of our overall transportation plan, but we need transit that cost-effectively addresses our real mobility needs and at a reasonable cost to taxpayers.

Cobb is proposing to spend more than a billion dollars on an infrastructure that will do little to address Cobb’s real transportation needs. It would also trap Cobb taxpayers into future extraordinarily high annual operating and maintenance costs, diverting future transportation dollars that would otherwise have been available to meet our real transportation needs. AMT’s maglev technology would clearly provide superior service at a dramatically lower cost for taxpayers.

There are additional concerns with the BRT proposal to build a barrier-separated “fixed guideway” in the middle of Cobb Parkway:

• Since the BRT would operate in the middle of Cobb Parkway, transit riders would need to get across Cobb Parkway every time they board and every time they exit the bus.

• Cobb Parkway is not a pedestrian-friendly downtown street, with traffic lights at every block to control the interaction of cars and pedestrians. Cobb Parkway is a major high-speed highway. There is no way to safely increase pedestrian activity along Cobb Parkway, without obstructing the current transportation performance of this major highway.

• Cobb wants to place transit stations where it wants to encourage the redevelopment of nearby parcels of private property. However, the fixed-guideway will block left turns into and out of hundreds of businesses all along Cobb Parkway. Impairing access to hundreds of existing businesses is not a good plan for improving Cobb’s economy.

• Two lanes of BRT are wider than the existing middle turn lane. The BRT plan will necessitate widening the pavement, adversely impacting businesses from Kennesaw to Cumberland.

AMT’s maglev requires a much smaller footprint. It could be implemented without taking away the middle turn lane, and without blocking any left turns, without widening the pavement, and with minimal adverse impacts on any businesses.

For many reasons, I think maglev on Cobb Parkway would need to be a public private partnership, not purely privately-funded venture.

I am not saying that Cobb should select AMT over other new 21st century technologies. I am just acknowledging that if AMT gets the Braves deal, and if it is successful, they would suddenly be way ahead of everybody else, and a clearly better investment than light rail or BRT.

Cobb should figure out how to put the BRT plan on hold until we can evaluate the performance of maglev.

If Cobb wants to move “forward” with fixed guideway transit on Cobb Parkway, let’s do so with a 21st century technology that provides better performance at a far lower cost for taxpayers.

Ron Sifen of Vinings is president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
Samuel Adams
September 03, 2013
Sifen presents valid points that cause one to consider how and why government doesn't seem to be able to figure this stuff out without a million dollar "survey."

Hire Sifen for a decent wage and get more than your money's worth, Chairman Lee. You won't hear what you want to hear, but you'll be serving the county...finally.
September 04, 2013
The MAGLEV system proposed between Baltimore & Washington projects out to $111.5M per mile. It will also cost $53M per year to operate. That's almost 5X what the annual budget of CCT.

Compared to 'Wheeled' options (like road improvemts, enhanced Bus & BRT service) MAGLEV & Rail is a money-pit. As we all know, to get the new infrastructure required for MAGLEV or Rail in general, the time horizon is going to be Verrryy Lonnnnggg. Costs will escalate because of NIMBY, etc. Come on? Haven't we all learned that by 40 years of Suburban fear successfully weakening MARTA?

We should realize that improving our roads (like it or not, we're a Car-centric 'Burb) and improve Bus Service. It's better Bang-For-the-Buck & will get done a lot quicker.

Here is my long-term concern: The overwhelming short-sighted & simplistic views that prevail in our county will prevent anything that adds Value & cuts Traffic from getting done. In the long-term, this will stymie business & economic growth. That same contingent is probably the biggest voice of complaints about traffic. This is a Classic Case of wanting things both ways.
John M
September 03, 2013
I agree that MAGLEV might be something to watch--to see if its 'lower cost, efficiency/ effectiveness and private support' lives up to these claims. This, more mass transit efficiency plus more one-ways and/or reversible lanes with controlled stoplights favoring rush hour traffic along major arteries would be much more effective and less costly in my opinion. Also, we should give greater attention to alleviating bottlenecks at exits/on-ramps to surface streets (esp. with nearby traffic lights/intersections).
September 04, 2013
Agreed. Let's get back to some basics like making it easier to drive & improving existing bus service. There was a time where I was excited about the prospect of being able to walk to a train station & get anywhere, all while reading the 'paper'.

Today, though, is different: Has all the opposition to MARTA not taught us anything?
September 03, 2013
This enduring recession means the only customers who can afford big construction projects are spending tax money. That explains why the Chamber of Commerce, with its membership including many major developers and contractors, now works as a lobbyist for the Chamber's membership, all over Greater Atlanta. Cobb county, not nearly indebted as most of the other metro counties, is a prime target for their need for funding.

The political "tin ears" that learned nothing from the unusual but clear SPLOST rejection -- Tim's ears and others -- have not learned that they do not work for the Chamber's members, no matter how generous their campaign donations and comfy the Chamber's support may seem.

We need to elect new county leadership and move on.

Rebelish has had enough of being ignored.
September 03, 2013
Good points here, Ron. But to be clear, AMT's system faced major problems at Old Dominion that have only been marginally improved upon at that Powder Springs facility. Truly rapid transportation (as fast or faster than top-speed traffic) is needed to attract riders. The application for the Braves would NOT need to be rapid to succeed. It is primarily a people-mover, low-speed application.

No doubt, I am against the BRT boondoggle and am in favor of alternatives! But you and the Braves should be careful about implementing anything which cannot provide a means of "backing out of the deal" should the end product not perform as expected!!!
rick wemmers
September 03, 2013
Spend, spend, spend....don't these politicians understand we waste more money than we get benefits from???? Suppose their salaries were tied to the promised benefits....that never come?
September 03, 2013
Respectfully, Following your articles over the years, I've noticed that your viewpoint overwhelmingly defaults to the answer of 'Do nothing'.

While I agree that T-SPLOST was not the right solution, I believe that BRT Is a good step toward solving transit issue, while offering a way to add actual human traffic to businesses along its route.

More importantly, though, BRT can function on EXISTING Infrastructure with modifications. Rail & MagLev require entirely new Infrastructure AND have absolutely no flexibilty if one needs to modify a route. Since BRT are basically buses, they have more utility. And because BRT is based on'The Bus', the existing CCT workforce can be used, instead of having to train new Rail operators.

So, to promote something like the Maglev is baffling: It's costs will definitely exceed that of a solution based on existing infrastructure.

The Braves might be studying Maglev solution, but in all due respect to The Braves: Transit planning for a Major Metro Area is not their core business. I also doubt that The Braves will wanna shell out perhaps a few hundred million just to shuttle a few fans to Turner Field. Bet Parking Lot enhancements/ expansions are more cost effective. Or, they could enhance the Bus service from the MARTA line...but those are for another study, I suppose.

I believe that the Cobb Commission is on to something by at least studying BRT. BTW, $5M is 0.45% of the projected cost of $1.1B. As my background is on very-high dollar projects, I can say that for a project of this magnitude, that cost is pretty good.

If Cobb can't stomach paying for something that will add value (you know: For every $1, get a return of more than $1), then I would sat that Cobb is not a very Capitalist place. But we know better.
September 04, 2013
BRT requires a new infrastructure to offer ANY benefit: separated lanes. To implement this requires the added expense of barriers and new pavement (OR removing a lane from existing capacity).

It's pretty funny that you support BRT, yet espouse the notion of getting back more than our investment. BRT and Siemens light rail (it's intended successor) both require MASSIVE subsidies in order to operate.

Either AMT's maglev or OTG's dual-sided monorail would be elevated and would not detract from existing traffic capacity. At $10 million per mile, a single lane of traffic isn't cheap, either!

Both of the alternative systems offer automated service. No driver training is needed.

Both of the alternatives would not be subject to traffic congestion. In-traffic buses would.

The AMT system has a test track built, operating at speeds up to 40 mph, I believe. The OTG system is merely a design, but based on existing technologies, so development risks are nearly zero. Both are worth serious investigation, not the unqualified reviews of competitors.

The fact is, our "leaders" want something that they see as an easy solution, whether or not it breaks the bank or solves the problem. They want something that's politically "safe"; something others have done before. They want to be able to claim, "hey, I was able to get $xxx million in federal funds for you" as their feather in their cap. Their consultants know what outcome they're seeking and don't try to go against their wishes.

Don't hold your breath for anything productive from our current Chamber and/or county "leadership" on the transit front!
Craig Kootsillas
September 04, 2013
You are correct that BRT can function on EXISTING infrastructure with modifications.

However, that is now what is being done in this plan.

The plan calls for a FIXED guideway and provides for stations to be built.

This plan is not about commuting, it's about increasing the value of the property surrounding the planned stations.
September 05, 2013
Archlab's post makes no sense. Sifen never seems to recommend Do Nothing. In this column, Sifen recommended maglev would be better than BRT. Actually, I didn't like this recommendation because it was so much more expensive than his previous recommendation for doubling bus service. Sifen has supported the I-75 toll lanes project and has supported toll lanes on other interstates. Sifen has supported some regional transit plan that GRTA recommended. If anything, Sifen recommends too much, not too little.
Chris T
September 03, 2013
I didn't know it was April Fool's Day. 1 billion bucks for nothing. Marta rail is a joke, I certainly won't ride it again and who is going to ride this thing? And so much being spent on study after study. Lets move on to more pressing matters. Reducing taxes and downsizing government. I can't even get the county to get those street cleaning trucks to work my area. They say they don't have the money.
September 02, 2013
Once again Sifen provides good information and makes a lot of sense.
taxpayer awakened
September 02, 2013
I have visited & ridden this impressive Maglev transit system , in Powder Springs - they should be better stewards of our tax dollars & consider this more efficient / feasible way to move masses
September 01, 2013
Why is Tim trying to ram this BRT down our throats when most Cobb taxpayers oppose it?
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