Commuter rail line to Griffin not as costly as state estimates, rail advocate says

By Maria Saporta

Georgians for Passenger Rail has analyzed cost projections for a commuter rail line between Atlanta and Griffin, and it has determined that the cost would be several hundred million dollars less than the estimates provided by the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority.

Gordon Kenna, executive director of Georgians for Passenger Rail, had a meeting with GRTA officials, who provided a breakdown of the various costs — construction, development and operations — for the pilot project.

GRTA’s has estimated that the project’s capital cost would be $463 million, including 30 percent for unallocated contingency costs.

Because the proposed project would be on an active rail corridor, Kenna said there are “no significant environmental, right of way, construction and permitting issues. Therefore, Kenna said a much fairer contingency cost would be 10 percent, which would reduce the project costs by 34.7 million.

Other areas of savings would include the contingency costs for rail cars. Also, GRTA has allocated about $43 million of the project cost to go towards the building of a multimodal passenger terminal in downtown Atlanta, but those costs are more appropriate to be included as part of the terminal’s costs.

Although the commuter rail line and the construction of the downtown terminal are inter-connected, Kenna said he believes the costs for building a station should be separated from the commuter line.

Other costs attributed to the commuter rail line project includes several stations in towns — such as Mountain View, East Point and Aviation Boulevard.

In all, Kenna said it would cost $99 million less than GRTA’s estimates. Plus, GRTA’s estimates do not take into account the impact the commuter rail line would have in the communities where it served.

“It’s really an economic development strategy, Kenna said.

The operating and maintenance costs also for the commuter rail line are higher than they should have been, Kenna said.

GRTA estimates that operating and maintenance costs for the line would be $402 million for 20 years. GRTA also did not take into account any revenues that the project would generate in fares, advertising or concessions.

When all costs and revenues would be included, Kenna said the true operating and maintenance cost would be $253 million.

So instead of GRTA’s total project estimate (capital and operating) of $865 million, Kenna said it cost closer to $617 million — a savings of $248 million.

Kenna also said the state should take into account the federal dollars that are already allocated to the commuter rail project. In fact, the commuter line is the only project on the entire list that already has some matching federal funds.

“We are hoping we can get their attention,” Kenna said. “We want them to consider equity, economic development and freight traffic.

The Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable’s executive committee is supposed to turn in its draft list of projects by Aug. 15. The list is being prepared to be part of a sales tax referendum that will go before voters in 2012.

In various lists that are floating around in preparation of the draft list in a couple of weeks, both the commuter rail line and the multimodal passenger terminal have been removed from the list. Kenna, as well as several other leaders including Clayton County Chairman Eldrin Bell, are hoping the commuter rail line project will be reinstated in the overall draft list.

“They need to ask: does this really created the kind of economic development and community that we want?” Kenna asked. “Does it yield a return on the investment?
Kenna is confident that under that criteria the commuter rail line would fare well as part of a regional transportation plan.

“We are not going away,” Kenna said. “It’s so important, not only for Atlanta, but to so many people outside Atlanta.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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