Tony Morris, president of AMT Inc., has an office on the Square and a test track for his magnetic levitation train in Powder Springs. Morris said his company can build a maglev train for about $25 million per mile, although AMT has not yet built any revenue-producing systems.
Morris has studied the 21.5 mile route from Kennesaw State University to the Perimeter and estimates it would cost $472 million to build a maglev train that would travel between those points.
If the county’s public bus system, Cobb Community Transit, were to operate the maglev train, he believes annual operations would cost $4.5 million to $5 million.
William Owen is a retired consulting engineer who has lived in Marietta for the last 55 years. His clients have included the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army, Postal Service, and Marietta and Atlanta housing authorities. Owen has created a company called the Georgia Monorail Consortium, which he operates out of his home. He has not built a full-scale monorail system before.
“The monorail system is a design, and it’s not something that is in being,” he said.
Disney World’s monorail came about when Walt Disney had his engineers design one for the theme park and then hired others to build it, Owen said.
He estimates a 30-mile monorail system would cost $42 to $45 million per mile to build.
Ron Sifen, a member of the county’s Transit System Advisory Board, invited the two to speak to the transit board on Monday.
“Neither really presented themselves as being an alternative to BRT for Cobb Connect,” Sifen said after the meeting. “That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be a more cost-effective way of doing the Cobb Connect project, but at least for tonight, they have not yet positioned themselves as an alternative way of doing the Cobb Connect project.”
The BRT plan
Faye DiMassimo, the county’s transportation director, announced in January that the cost of a proposed bus rapid-transit system connecting Kennesaw State to Midtown had dropped from $1.1 billion to $494 million. DiMassimo said if commissioners were to approve the bus plan and the funding fell into place, the system could be operational as early as 2018. The chief cost savings comes from eliminating the dozen grade separations — bridges and tunnels — planned along Cobb Parkway that would allow the buses to pass through traffic without stopping. An additional lane would be built along Cobb Parkway and reserved for the bus-rapid transit line. Traffic lights would be adjusted to allow the buses to pass through intersections unimpeded.
Cobb Community Transit already has 18 bus routes with a fiscal 2014 budget of $18 million. Of that sum, 33 percent is paid by passenger fares. The rest comes from federal grants and the county’s general fund, spokesman Robert Quigley said.
The county outsources its CCT operations to Lombard, Ill.-based Veolia Transportation, paying the firm $13 million annually. The county also employs seven people to run CCT operations, Quigley said.
Goreham: A good place for development
Cobb Chamber of Commerce Chairman Ben Mathis said he’s visited the bus-rapid transit system Cleveland uses and believes it has “a tremendous amount of value.” County Chairman Tim Lee is also a fan. Commissioner Helen Goreham says having some kind of mass transit along the Cobb Parkway corridor makes sense to her.
“I also envision a lot of development and redevelopment taking place in that 41 corridor where redevelopment needs to take place,” Goreham said. “Also, if we continue to grow as a county and as a region, and we have all these people moving here, well, where are we going to put them? If we want to put density somewhere, I certainly don’t want multi-family housing projects in west Cobb County. Why not along 41? Wouldn’t that be a smart place to place some high-density multi-family housing projects along a transit route?”
Goreham said an attractive feature of bus-rapid transit is that instead of having a fixed rail, it gives the county flexibility to adjust the routes. It’s also much less expensive than light rail, which DiMassimo pegged at
Goreham hailed DiMassimo’s reduction of the BRT cost as well as U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson’s prediction that federal funding would come through to help finance the system.
“To me, there are a lot of indicators that say, ‘Hey, this is something that we need to consider highly,’” she said.
Goreham said what she needs to see is how the study recommends paying for the system whether that means through a sales tax or a special transportation district tax along the Cobb Parkway corridor or something else.
“If there’s going to be a sticking point on the area that might be a concern it’s the area of funding, and I’ve got to feel very comfortable with that area before giving a thumbs up on the proposal,” she said.
Ott has concerns
Commissioner Bob Ott is less enthusiastic. Pointing to how the county already heavily subsidizes Cobb Community Transit, Ott said he’s waiting to hear what the maintenance and operations costs will be.
Lee said that will be identified in April.
There is also the question of how much congestion will be created by eliminating the bridges or tunnels originally planned to keep the bus lane moving.
DiMassimo says the plan is to program the lights to turn green as the buses travel Cobb Parkway, but that means the lights in the crossroads will turn red.
“I think you’re going to increase the congestion, especially by getting rid of the grade separations,” Ott said. “You’re now going to start stopping the traffic or delaying the traffic coming across the street so the BRT can come through.”
The county just built its Windy Mac Connector to allow traffic to move better from west Cobb. It’s now preparing to build the Windy Hill East and West SPLOST projects to move traffic across Windy Hill Road.
“Well, is that traffic now going to be stopped for a BRT coming down 41?” Ott said. “And is the same thing going to happen at the South Loop? North Loop? Are we going to create new congestion points by putting in the BRT?”
DiMassimo says there is enough right-of-way on the sides of Cobb Parkway to create an additional lane for the buses, but Ott said he’s waiting to learn where the stations will be built.
“All the transit stations I’ve seen — at least the ones around the world, there may be some different here in the United States — the transit stops are in the middle of the road, and you either have bridges or tunnels,” Ott said.
“You’ve got to get the people from one side to the other, so somewhere the passengers are going to be passing the travel lane.”
Lee said there could be some stations in the middle of Cobb Parkway and some on the sides.
“That’s what we’re going to find out in April is what type of stops for each stop location is the best
solution,” Lee said.
Will voters agree to a transportation tax?
As for another tax increase, Ott is skeptical whether the east Cobb residents he represents will agree to one.
“You can never predict what the voters will do, but if you’re talking about a transit corridor that’s going to go down 41, I can’t imagine that people in east Cobb, I don’t think many are going to use it,” he said.
“It will take almost as long for them to get to it as it would to go to their destination, and that’s why you have to put transit where the people are. It’s not where you want them to be or where you think they’re going to be. And I don’t have a problem with high-density development, but that’s what developers are for, not the government.”
A tax will most likely be recommended for paying for the system, although Lee said that’s not necessarily what the county will approve.
“Until I see the whole picture, I may come back and say this is not the right time to do this,” Lee said. “I think it is the right time, but the details need to be evaluated before anybody makes any firm decisions.”
Morris, the maglev designer, called BRT “the ride of last resort.”
“Anybody that could get a car would not ride BRT, at least that’s what we’ve seen internationally,” Morris said. “And of course what happened Tuesday night shows what the folly of BRT is because unless you have your own guideway that’s not going to ice up and snow up, it’s not going to get you much better than driving your car.”
Yet it’s clear to Morris county officials are moving full speed ahead with the BRT project.
“The fact is that BRT is going to be a distraction for the county, and I say that as a citizen almost more than a salesman,” he said. “It’s really not going to make any difference on the parking lot that’s otherwise known as 75. It’s not going to make any difference in getting to the Braves game. It’s not going to make any difference on Cobb Parkway.”
The buses will run, Morris said, “but the capital cost has to be paid by the taxpayer, and about 80 percent of the operating cost has to be paid by the taxpayer because fare box will only pay 20 percent of it. From my standpoint, I think that’s probably what the county is going to do.”