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Good editioral on the costs of commuter rail

Guest donaltopablo

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Guest donaltopablo

Dollars, logic scream for commuter rail

It should be a no-brainer.

Georgia has its first opportunity to implement a commuter rail line from Lovejoy to Atlanta with nearly all of the money coming from federal sources. And if Georgia decides not to start its commuter rail program, it stands to lose about $100 million in federal money that is dedicated to this project.

Just that fact alone should stop the bickering.

But the other arguments for creating a commuter rail system are just as persuasive. It's no secret that the Atlanta region has a serious traffic problem that will get worse as 2 million more people move here in the next 20 years.

Our highways and roadways already are congested. So there's a dire need to build greater capacity to move people around the region. And no mode is more efficient to move people than rail.

There's lots of talk about whether the region should chose rail or express buses. This either/or discussion is potentially dangerous because the Atlanta region desperately needs both if it hopes to make a dent in its traffic and pollution problems.

Ideally, Georgia would have implemented its entire commuter rail program by now, giving people choices of how to get around the greater metro area. That plan called for 425 miles of commuter rail that would have connected 55 communities in 24 counties. It would have had a spider-web network of lines reaching out from Atlanta to Canton, Gainesville, Athens, Madison, Macon, Senoia and Bremen.

The entire program would cost $2.2 billion, compared with the $20 billion currently proposed to have bus routes that would cover a much smaller area than commuter rail.

For years, Georgia has had plans on paper for commuter rail. For years, every roadblock, literally, has been put up to prevent commuter rail from becoming a reality. Until now.

Today, Norfolk Southern is willingly talking to the state about instituting a commuter rail line from Macon to Atlanta. With the money on hand, the state can start a 26-mile commuter line from downtown Atlanta to Lovejoy.

Rail proponents would love to see that line extended to Griffin (at an additional cost of between $50 million and $65 million) and on to Macon, which would cost another $185 million.

Consider the numbers

Although it sounds expensive, consider this: For the $351 million it is expected to cost to have an Atlanta-Macon commuter rail line at a length of 103 miles, the state could build only 9.1 miles of HOV lanes or 18 miles of bus rapid transit, according to Doug Alexander, rail manager for the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority.

Then consider capacity. One eight-car commuter train can carry 1,120 passengers with a crew of one engineer and two conductors. It would take 23 buses with seating for 50 passengers (and 23 drivers) to haul the same number of people. And buses, like cars, use up precious pavement.

If the state really wants to maximize its investments in roadways, it should wholeheartedly support rail. The more options it gives commuters to get around, the better our highways will move traffic.

The Atlanta-Lovejoy line would upgrade the track from the current 10 mph speed to 60 mph. The Georgia Department of Transportation, which should be commended for proposing and supporting this line, would improve road and rail crossings along the corridor.

Those investments would be long-term benefits to the state no matter what happens with commuter rail.

"It gives us a great opportunity to do something," says Hal Wilson, administrator of intermodal programs for the Georgia DOT. "And we can't use [the money] for anything else."

Investing in commuter rail is also a first step toward high-speed rail, a concept that has been embraced by chambers of commerce across the Southeast. In fact, Georgia is way behind some of its competitors -- Florida, North Carolina and Texas -- in building a passenger rail network.

The proposal sits on Gov. Sonny Perdue's desk. He can make a lasting contribution to Georgia's transportation system by finally getting the state to jump-start its commuter rail program.

The commuter rail line also will require the city of Atlanta to transfer ownership of the red-brick, vacant Georgia Power building on Forsyth Street to the state to help meet the local match. That transfer is still being held up in the City Council's Transportation Committee. And that property is needed to build a bare-bones rail stop on the site of the multimodal station across from MARTA's Five Points Station.

"We have not pushed as hard as we could have pushed," Mayor Shirley Franklin admits. "Now that we have the main issue of water improvements behind us, it gives us the opportunity to have conversations on transportation, including multimodal and the Belt Line.

"I'm interested in a network of rail that's going to connect the commercial centers in the state, and I would like to see Atlanta be the major hub. Nothing would please me more than to be connected by rail and smart transportation."

It's true that people like trains. But trains have much less to do with the past and nostalgia than they do with the future. The most progressive cities in the world are investing in state-of-the-art rail systems, from light-rail to high-speed trains, to promote rational land use and transportation flow.

And those communities understand that all modes of transportation require ongoing public funding: roads, buses, planes and trains. To force rail service to meet a non-subsidized test is grossly unfair, particularly compared with the investments governments make in all the other modes of transportation.

No alternatives to cars

The oddest argument to come from rail opponents is that people in the Atlanta region drive cars and don't ride trains. Well, how can they ride trains if there aren't any? How can we ever expect people to use alternative modes of transportation if the only form of regional transportation we have built is an extensive network of roads and highways?

"We need fewer cars on the road," says U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Atlanta), who has been instrumental in securing the federal funds for this project. "I believe in rail. I would love to be able to ride from Atlanta to Lovejoy and from Lovejoy to Atlanta."

The beauty of this proposal is that it would be in operation by 2006.

"We need to get started," says state Rep. Doug Stoner of Cobb County. "Based on all the transportation projects out there, this is one of the most instantaneous we can do. I really can't see how this cannot succeed."

Last week, the Georgia Passenger Rail Authority passed a resolution in support of the Atlanta-Lovejoy line.

"I've been on the authority for nine years, and this is the first concrete step we've taken," says Ross Goddard, who serves as secretary.

But the authority also got news last week that Perdue had slashed its budget in half -- from $400,000 to $200,000 -- in his supplemental budget. And speculation is rampant that the governor will totally eliminate the authority in the budget he'll present this week.

How odd it all is. Georgia finally has a fail-proof opportunity to begin its commuter rail program. And the very entity that is supposed to look out for passenger rail in Georgia could disappear.

The only bright spot here is the Georgia DOT. It is broadening its horizon beyond its highway department role to that of an agency that embraces multiple modes of transportation.

Since the opportunity for an Atlanta-Lovejoy train is a no-brainer, whatever decision is made by state leaders, including the governor, will speak volumes.

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Guest donaltopablo


Other than being shaky on mass transit (he's not overly for it, but he's not totally against it either), he's not a bad Governor. Hell, he killed the flag. He gets points in my book.

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Atlanta needs this more than just about any other city. They should jump on this opportunity. I wish Detroit would get money for something like this! Detroiters spend only one hour less per year stuck in traffic than Atlantans do, although we don't have the same air pollution problem that Atlanta has.

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I don't think so. Obviously anything can happen, but Atlanta lead the nation in job growth last year (possibly the last couple). Even though they aren't the best jobs, it is certainly still a sign of a strong economy. Strong economy generally leads to solid growth. I think it's a pretty resonable estimate of what the metro area will be seeing in the next 20-30 years.

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I don't know....a lot can change in 20-30 years. People can't even predict what will happen to the economy in 5 years, let alone 30. Even with a strong economy, I can't see it maintaining such a high growth rate. I think that 2 million more is a bit optimistic. I guess time will tell....

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Guest donaltopablo

BTW For the record, 2 million in 20 years isn't maintaining it's growth rate, it means slowing by half. Now that the metro area is nearly 4.5 million people, that's about a 20% growth rate, nearly half of what the metro area saw in the 90s. Although a lot with the economy has changed, it has shown little signs of slowing for the Atlanta area. Atlanta's major industries continue to remain strong, and 4 of those 20 years with better than expected growth. Could it be 1.5 million instead of 2? Sure, things could cool off. But consider Atlanta made it through the recession with still very respectable growth and still leading the nation in jobs, I'd say the prospects are pretty good that 2 million is probably a good estimate.

I could easily be mistaken and a lot could happen, but I've yet to hear anything constructive to illustrate that Atlanta is in a position not to continue to grow over the next 20 years, just people casting "shadows".

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Las Vegas probably won't continue to keep growing at 40-50 percent. However, Atlanta did grow at nearly 40% per decade, as did Phoenix and Vegas. Atlanta slowed to 15-25% range now. So it did decrease. Atlanta has not maintained the same level of growth it saw during the 80s and 90s and 2 million more people isn't based on those percantages, but rather lower, 15-25% range.

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Guest donaltopablo

I understand that.

But I'm not convinced that Atlanta will consistently grow by 1 million decade-over-decade here on out. I believe it'll continue to be high growth - but not 1 million a decade.

I don't believe it will last indefinitely either. I believe it was taper off, but I do believe it will continue through most of this decade, and into the next. And if it does, it will certainly be on track to hit somewhere near the 2 million mark. Look at Dallas, which saw it's boom during the 70s and 80s and continues to grow nearly 30 years later and a more than respectable pace. Consider Atlanta's business climate has not tapered off, I imagine or future looks a lot of Dallas does right now.

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Maybe, maybe not. Business climate isn't the entire reason Atlanta is growing. Its also a hot retirement area (as is the entire south), its also a huge mecca for progressive things in a region not known for progressive attitude. Hoards of people move to Atlanta from MS, AL, TN, NC, SC seeking some progressive feel from the smaller cities and rural towns that rule those regions.

One thing about Atlanta's growth is that while many metro areas add counties to their statistical ranking - Atlanta seems to pick up 2, 3, 5 counties a decade. When you do this, it artificially adds people to the MSA count that were already there 10 years ago.

I'd like to show you this chart I made up very quickly, showing the core counties of Atlanta. I was wary of putting Henry, Cherokee, and Douglas. But oh well. ;)




Fulton - 816,006

Clayton - 236,517

Henry - 119,341

DeKalb - 665,865

Gwinnett - 588,448

Cobb - 607,751

Cherokee - 141,903

Douglas - 92,174

Total 2000 - 3,268,005


Fulton - 648,951

Clayton - 182,052

Henry - 58,741

DeKalb - 545,837

Gwinnett - 352,910

Cobb - 447,745

Cherokee - 90,204

Douglas - 71,120

Total 1990 - 2,397,560


Fulton - 589,904

Clayton - 150,357

Henry - 36,309

DeKalb - 483,024

Gwinnett - 166,903

Cobb - 297,718

Cherokee - 51,699

Douglas - 54,573

Total 1980 - 1,830,487


Fulton - 607,592

Clayton - 98,043

Henry - 23,724

DeKalb - 415,387

Gwinnett - 72,349

Cobb - 196,793

Cherokee - 31,059

Douglas - 28,659

Total 1970 - 1,473,606


Fulton - 556,326

Clayton - 46,365

Henry - 17,619

DeKalb - 256,782

Gwinnett - 43,541

Cobb - 114,174

Cherokee - 23,001

Douglas - 16,741

Total 1960 - 1,074,549

As you can tell - Atlanta grew in the 1990's more then ever before. I think much of this was attibuted to the International attention the city got after the Olympics were held, and the late 90's economic boom that was very unique in its style (based on the information and service economy).

If you look at historic BLS.GOV employment data - Atlanta really boomed in and after the Olympics of 1996.

Since then its tapered off quite a bit. Even though its still high growth. I project Atlanta will grow between 600,000 and 800,000 people this decade - add in the new metro counties and their growth it may be 1 million again, but that's not really all growth.

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Guest donaltopablo

Since then its tapered off quite a bit. Even though its still high growth. I project Atlanta will grow between 600,000 and 800,000 people this decade - add in the new metro counties and their growth it may be 1 million again, but that's not really all growth.

I can agree with that to the most part. Atlanta adding counties has helped some of Atlanta's population jobs, no doubt about that. But then again, as bad as Atlanta has been sprawling, many of those counties enjoy significant growth as part of the metro area. Henry is a prime example. When added, it only gave the city 17,000 new residents to the metro area in 60s or so. What's it like 100K plus after the 2000 census? So I agree that some of the population has been there for a while, where as some of the growth happened as a result of the metros growth.

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Guest donaltopablo

Gwinnett isn't that far from Atlanta aka the city. There are places in Fulton county that are further away geographically and less developed than Gwinnett and Cobb counties. Besides, if you want a single family home on the northside of town, and can afford the N. Fulton, Gwinnett is the next choice. I can't say I'm at all surprised with Gwinnett's growth.

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This is interesting in light of all the BS I'm reading in this thread.

From the Atlanta Business Journal:


Atlanta's office market will be the strongest in the country during the next five years.

That's the conclusion of Grubb & Ellis Co.'s 2004 national real estate forecast released Jan. 14.

"Atlanta is probably the strongest in job creation of large job markets for the next five years," said Robert Bach, national director of market analysis for Grubb & Ellis in Illinois. "That's probably one of the key variables that read into those rankings."

Los Angeles came in second for office investment with Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif.; Washington, D.C.; Phoenix and Las Vegas rounding out the top markets.

Atlanta also tallied very high in other sectors as well: The metro area ranks the second strongest in the nation -- behind New Jersey -- for the industrial market, first in the nation for retail real estate strength -- leading Austin, Texas; Phoenix; and Dallas-Fort Worth -- and third in the nation for multi-family housing strength, behind Los Angeles and New York.

"Virtually all economic indicators point to improving conditions," Bach stated in the report. Despite a lag in job creation as part of the national economic recovery, Bach predicted that a spurt in new jobs will lead to more leasing activity and increased investor confidence during the next 12 months.

"By the second half of the year, landlords will see their negotiating power slowly begin to improve," Bach stated in the report. "Atlanta, Los Angeles and Riverside-San Bernardino, Calif., have been identified as the office markets most likely to perform for investors over the next five years."

While Atlanta's overall vacancy rate is above 20 percent -- much higher than the 17.6 percent national vacancy rate average -- Bach said he expects average rents to begin to recover from depressed conditions in the coming five years. Currently, Atlanta's average rental rate for class A office space is $22.25 per square foot, compared to $27.87 per square foot on a national average.

Bach still raised caution on commercial real estate overall, especially as companies continue to outsource jobs to foreign countries and the massive budget deficits plague the national economy.

But citing Newell Rubbermaid Inc. and Rayovac Corp., which have and will relocate their headquarters here, Bach said Atlanta "has always been able to attract businesses coming in from the outside. That's going to happen again."

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This is interesting in light of all the BS I'm reading in this thread.

Aren't we a bit testy?

Anyway, I hope the commuter rail project is a go and becomes a success. Rail is good - it just needs to be created properly with proper development near the stations. Too often you see rail lines not built properly with the follow-ups of urban development.

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I have always been surprised that Atlanta has not done more to feed Marta with commuter rail and/or expand it more into the suburbs like DC has done. The Metro in DC and Marta in Atlanta were the first new rail systems in the US in quite some time and are about the same age. But DC really took advantage of the system to inspire development. Atlanta seems to have built it and then forgotten about it.

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Guest donaltopablo

Some more details on the plan/costs of the southside commuter rail line.

Atlanta to Lovejoy?

Proposed commuter rail service could breathe life into Clayton County town


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Conjure up an image of a commuter rail city, and Lovejoy in Clayton County is not likely to come to mind.

Lovejoy is known for the three detention centers in the old town area and Dorsey's Nursery and Garden Center on Tara Boulevard, where customers learn the do's and don'ts of planting.

It's also known for LaCosta, a neighborhood of 650 well-kept mobile homes on land owned by County Commissioner Charley Griswell's wife and sons.

Lovejoy has just two full-time employees: the city clerk and the clerk's assistant. Services, such as police and fire protection, are provided by the county.

No matter. If metro Atlanta begins commuter train service, a line to little Lovejoy is likely to be the starting point. That's how far funds would stretch.

The plan is to spend $87 million in federal funds and $19 million in state money to upgrade the train track, build park-and-ride lots and station platforms with canopies, and refurbish rail cars. From Lovejoy, the train would glide 26 miles northward to Jonesboro, Morrow, Forest Park, East Point and downtown Atlanta.

The Georgia Department of Transportation is eager to begin construction to eliminate the risk of losing the federal money when Congress adopts its next transportation bill.

"It's not available forever," says Hal Wilson, the department's administrator of intermodal programs. "The longer you wait to use it, the more you're tampering with fate."

The big question is how to subsidize the operating expenses after the third year of service, when federal money would run out. Gov. Sonny Perdue so far hasn't endorsed the rail service because of concerns that the state might be saddled with millions of dollars in costs.

The Transportation Department plans to talk with community leaders about how to offset long-term operating expenses. It also must negotiate with track owner Norfolk Southern over sharing the railway. Norfolk Southern spokesman Joel Harrell says the railroad is open to commuter train service on some of its lines, including Lovejoy-Atlanta.

Wilson hopes that all can be worked out in the next few months so construction can begin this year and service can start in 2006.

Lovejoy can't wait.

"You build it, and they will come," says Mayor Joe Murphy, sitting in a room at City Hall decorated with portraits of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara. The Civil War stories of novelist Margaret Mitchell's great-grandfather, a Clayton resident, inspired "Gone With the Wind."

Murphy sees train service as spurring redevelopment along the railroad track, which over the years has lost most of its old brick buildings.

Lovejoy's population is about 4,000, but train planners say commuter service would draw from at least 10 miles outside the city. People living near Hampton, McDonough and Fayetteville -- all growing cities -- would drive to a park-and-ride lot in Lovejoy and board one of two morning trains.

"The village stuff of walking down to the station is over," Wilson says of suburban train service. "Parking is critical. You put 500 spaces in, you immediately need 600."

The Transportation Department projects that more than 700 people would use the train in the mornings. With a monthly pass, the trip into Atlanta might cost $4, and $4 more to return, Wilson says. Without a pass, the ticket might be $5 each way.

Eager to ride

Cassandra Sheffield, who carpools with her husband from Hampton to a job in Midtown Atlanta, says she definitely would give the train a try.

"I'm originally from New Jersey," Sheffield says. "I'm not used to this. If I'm without a car, I can't get to work."

Another Hampton commuter, Terri Roycroft, also says she'd try the train. She is fed up with parking fees and traffic jams.

"It's probably an hour and 15 minutes on a rainy day and 45 minutes on a nice day," Roycroft says of her commute. "To see how traffic has increased, it's really disheartening."

Daniel Dorsey, an owner of the garden center, wonders how train service attracting more people would benefit longtime residents who enjoy country living.

"I don't know," Dorsey says. "It's hard to see, for somebody who's been here all their lives, how good it is."

But Al Harrell, owner of Lovejoy's most popular restaurant, the Country Bumpkin Cafe, says the town's location is ideal for a train stop.

"Lovejoy is the sleeper bedroom community of the metro Atlanta area," Harrell says. "It really sits in the middle of a large population, as far as the Southern Crescent's concerned."

A train station would be a big boon, in his opinion. "I hope they put it across the street."

The Transportation Department hasn't decided where to locate the proposed station. It could go near the new gas stations and fast-food restaurants on Tara Boulevard. Or it might end up in the old part of town, near City Hall.

Ellis Conkle hopes for the latter. He owns Conkle's Tree Service ("A Family Tree-dition") and seven acres in the old section of town.

"I would be happy if they bought my place," he says.

Focus of development

City Councilman Arlie Aukerman says train service "is going to make Lovejoy blossom more than ever."

On a driving tour of his hometown of 20 years, Aukerman points out the good and the bad.

Lovejoy Road west of Tara Boulevard is alive with intense residential development. Houses starting around $130,000 are going up on both sides of the road. An apartment complex with 280 units was recently built next to the site of a future Wal-Mart Supercenter.

The low point of Aukerman's tour is in the town's old section, where a three-acre abandoned trailer park has been partly demolished. Lovejoy's City Council and the landowner are battling over what to do with the tract.

If Manassas Park, Va., is any example, commuter rail service could turn today's dilapidated trailer site into tomorrow's upscale residential building.

Less than 30 miles west of Washington, Manassas Park is the smallest city on the Virginia Rail Express line. The train service "has become sort of a focus for development," says Manassas Park's planning director, Dan Painter. Undeveloped industrial land was rezoned to high-density residential because of the demand for housing near the station, he says.

A 350-unit gated apartment complex recently opened next to the train stop. Nearby, townhouses and condominiums are selling for $350,000 and up.

"What we're attracting out here are people who work in downtown D.C.: very well-paid professional people," Painter says. In fact, the train is so popular that only those who board at the farthest stations find seats, he says.

Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer, chairman of the Georgia Rail Passenger Authority, says Atlanta train service will reduce car trips to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where more than 40,000 people work.

"A great number of those people don't need their automobiles during the day," Rhodenizer says. "We forget the impact of Hartsfield here."

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