GPPF on the commuter rail

Thanks to Larry Stanley over at the Life In Henry County blog for the link and kind words.
Benita Dodd has written a great article on the proposed commuter rail line. Ms. Dodd is the Vice President of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.
Here is the article in it’s entirety:

Commuter Rail Line’s Supporters Off Track
By Benita M. Dodd
“If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging,” cowboy legend Will Rogers is credited with saying. Unless policy-makers and politicians involved in the proposed Atlanta-to-Lovejoy commuter rail’s service stop shoveling and heed his sage advice, the hole they’re digging will engulf transportation dollars and bury taxpayers.
It’s obvious that Atlanta is no longer the logical commuter rail hub it once was. Seventy-five percent of the region’s workers commute from homes in the suburbs to jobs in the suburbs, and the core of the Atlanta region is losing ground as an employment destination, a Brookings Institution analysis of 2000 census data found.

At the same time, a primary reason for gridlock in metro Atlanta is a poorly functioning arterial road network. Traffic density (traffic volume per square mile) is below average, yet congestion is among the worst in the nation. Although under improvement now, our inadequate arterial road network has driven motorists to freeways for local trips and inhibited alternate routes around incidents or congestion.
Ridership and cost projections for the 26-mile-long first phase of the proposed commuter rail service remain a moving target. That’s no surprise. A 2002 study in the Journal of the American Planning Association found costs underestimated in 90 percent of transportation infrastructure projects; by 45 percent for rail. A 14-nation study in the spring 2005 issue found rail passenger forecasts over-estimated by an average of 106 percent. (It also found about half of road project traffic forecasts off by more than 20 percent; but as many were under-estimated as over-estimated.)
Hogwash? The Georgia Rail Passenger Program’s Atlanta-Lovejoy ridership projections for 2009 were recently inexplicably cut 15 percent. That means more money from local governments – taxpayers – to cover funding shortfalls to operate the service. Even then, it’s just so much pie in the sky to expect 3,080 passengers daily to choose limited service on four trains comprising refurbished locomotives pulling 40-year-old refurbished cars that even must be retrofitted to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act – on a schedule subject to the caprice of a freight rail service.
The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s express bus service almost mirrors the rail route, uses luxury coaches, charges less than half the $10.60 roundtrip rail fare and anticipates 900 daily riders by 2009. It would be generous to double GRTA’s 2009 ridership projection to apply to the rail service. And this rail line’s farebox is projected to cover 45 percent of operating costs by 2011, far higher than all new start commuter lines except Virginia’s. Then, a Freedom of Information request with the state Department of Transportation reveals DOT’s capital costs now at $115 million versus $105.9 million – excluding another $8 million for a line segment that the state is still negotiating with Norfolk Southern and CSX. Taxpayers, beware.
Congestion relief assumptions, too, are questionable. Without explanation, GRPP estimates that by 2030 an auto trip between Atlanta and Lovejoy will take 81 minutes. The train trip time of 46 minutes excludes travel to and from stations. GRPP also estimates that the projected 770,000 annual rail trips will mean 21 million fewer vehicle miles driven by 2009, implying that every passenger would have driven a single-occupancy vehicle. Traditionally, new train riders are former bus riders, negating much gain in transit users. That will hurt the more cost-effective, flexible GRTA bus option, which can change with changing regional demographics. Commuter rail won’t take many vehicles off the road, given its cost, lack of flexibility, timing and fixed route.
Even the impact on air quality is negligible, because transportation dollars are being wasted instead of targeting required road improvements and flexible, cost-effective transit options that actually help those who need them – or relieve congestion. Today, technology and environmental policy, not transportation policy, should target emissions issues.
This costly line will not impact Georgia’s economy, either. The economy is promising; it’s transportation that is hurting. The marketplace will and should define economic development; transportation policy must focus on moving Georgians and their goods from point A to point B in the most efficient and cost-effective way.
“Losing” these federally earmarked funds is a gain for Georgia transportation policy: They were appropriated by Georgia congressional representatives “bringing home the pork,” and they’ll lead to the diversion of other transportation dollars. This project, which hasn’t even needed approval from the Federal Transit Administration and wouldn’t pass muster, is meaningless to Georgia commuters as a transportation option.
Before commuter rail gets under way, state leaders owe Georgians an objective examination of proponents’ assumptions. Georgians deserve reassurance that they’re getting the most bang for their buck. To paraphrase a cowboy, even when policy-makers believe they’re riding ahead of the herd, they need to take a look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.