Atlanta Streetcar could expose city to liability for damage to underground utilities
By David Pendered
The Atlanta Streetcar could make the city liable for tens of millions of dollars for repairs stemming from stray electricity used to power the system, city officials said Tuesday.
Stray electricity is commonly associated with streetcar systems. It is known to corrode transit rails, water and sewer pipes, cables and other underground utilities, said Atlanta Public Works Commission Richard Mendoza.
Mendoza said the city learned of the problem only recently because it doesn’t have technical expertise in electrically propelled transit systems.
“We were relying on the expertise of our partner, MARTA,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza told the Utilities Committee of the Atlanta City Council that a test for stray electricity was conducted by URS, a company that helped develop the system.
However, URS tested for stray electricity every 10 seconds, producing results that may not identify power surges, Mendoza said. The city wants to retest the system on one-second intervals.
City officials reached this decision after a subsequent test conducted in November by another company evidently turned up some potential liability issues. That test cost the city an unexpected $51,800.
“To a lawyer’s eye, it was clear to me that there was some potential in the results that Russell Corrosion provided,” said Lem Ward, a city attorney.
“We’ll have a better baseline, if it does become necessary to take further action on these things in the future,” Ward said. “I understand the cost overrun issue, but from where I sit it’s the kind of insurance I think is necessary.”
Mayor Kasim Reed’s administration is asking the city council to agree to hire a consultant to test and consult on stray electricity related to the streetcar. Atlanta Services Group would be paid a total of $120,962 for a three-year contract to test for stray electricity and provide technical advice to city officials, according to the legislation.
Ward said a claim against URS remains a possibility. Ward said he understands that city officials have discussed the issue with URS. URS has responded that the test it conducted satisfied terms of its contract, he said.
“I’m trying to move during a reasonable warranty period,” Ward said. “I don’t think we had control over the phrasing of what MARTA was doing.”
At this point in the meeting, councilmembers Yolanda Adrean and Howard Shook expressed their growing frustration with the streetcar project.
Adrean made a motion to hold the paper, despite the administration’s desire for the committee to approve it Tuesday. The committee voted to hold the paper and did not set a date for reconsideration.
“We’re going to have an uneasy marriage with MARTA,” Adrean said. “Every time there’s a technical issues, there’s a, ‘He said, she said.’ I wish the streetcar were properly given up for adoption to MARTA.
“We are not a transit agency, and this idea that we’re going to have to hire all of these experts to run a couple of mile loop is lunatic to me,” Adrean said.
Shook said he was frustrated the city was expected to foot the bill with cash that could be spent elsewhere.
“Somebody missed something somewhere,” Shook said to Mendoza. “I’m conflicted further by my frustration that your department doesn’t have $13,500 for speed humps [on a road] that leads to a school. But this is money to cover a mistake. I resent it. And I resent that there’s going to be no effort to figure out what went wrong. Somebody blew something, somewhere.
“I’m getting off the streetcar, in terms of all the cost overruns,” Shook said.. “It’s pretty. I hope it works. … I think it’s time for the people who wanted it to start picking up some of these overruns.”
The Atlanta Streetcar was developed with support from the city of Atlanta, MARTA, Central Atlanta Progress, and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District.