Rail Report raises questions

The Georgia Department of Audits has released a report on passenger/commuter rail in Georgia. The first page of the report shows the waste of taxpayer dollars.

We estimate that during the 10-year period from fiscal year 1997 through fiscal years 2006, the state spent approximately $21.1 million in state and federal funds for studies proposing a network of seven commuter rail lines and seven intercity lines that would serve Atlanta and other major cities. As of January 2007, however, the only project in development is a 26-mile commuter rail line from Atlanta to Lovejoy – a compromise project that was never identified as a stand-alone rail line in any of the studies (even though it may function as such).

Ten years and $21.1 million in taxpayer dollars and absolutely nothing to show for it! This is information that seems to have been kept from the public. Furthermore, the small print shows the numbers are actually $26.8 million from additional non identified contracts from 2003 and 2004 from within the GRPA!

On page seven of the report, you’ll see a map of all the proposed state rail lines in the state. What the map doesn’t mention is the total cost for these projects, which the Statewide Transportation Plans lists the total for this lines at $12 billion.

Exhibit seven (p. 9) shows the ever changing bureaucracy of commuter rail in Georgia, the Exhibit also notes that GRPA eliminated all paid support staff last year, however the GRPA board is still in place and chaired by former Clayton County Commissioner Carl Rhodenizer who has just publicly admitted he authorized a contract that Clayton County had no intentions of ever honoring.

The report shows that GDOT and Norfolk Southern have reach an agreement “in principle” on the use of tracks. However, this is after 33 months of negotiations and they still say they are three to five months from a finalizing an agreement. As the report shows these negotiations were only supposed to last five months. Here we are 28 months later, watching money being thrown away by a bureaucrat’s dreams.
Now, here is the most sobering part of the report, the risks of the Atlanta-Lovejoy line.

– Possible need for additional funding: According to the Georgia Department of Audit’s reports that an additional $10 million will be needed to develop engineering plans to construct rail stations. Also the reports states, “GDOT personnel also indicated that they were considering such alternatives as having the land for rail stations donated.”

– State liable for federally allocated funds ($87 million): The report quotes a letter from the FTA to GDOT that “if the service were terminated before the 20-year useful life is relaized, the non-depreciated value of the Federal investment accomplished on the privately owned [right of way] would have to be remitted to FTA.”

– Liability for operations shortfall: CMAQ money will pay for the first three years of operating costs. Intially, Clayton County had agreed to pay the shortfall after the CMAQ support ran out, as has been documented here, that attitude has changed.

– May not be “fair test” of rail service: The report states that success or failire of the Atlanta-Lovejoy line could impact future rail projects in the state. The project notes that if this line fails, rail supporters could complain that it wasn’t “a fair evaluation of the overall passenger rail concept.” So even if the line comes into operation and fails, rail advocates may cry foul? That doesn’t make any sense. Especially since the warnings have been given countless times.

49 comments

  1. Steve,

    People want rail and alternatives, and by definition everything that government spends money on (including roads) is a loss leader since government is not in a for profit business.

    Why don’t you answer me this question: When I drive to my parents house from downtown Atlanta I pay $.50 on the Georgia 400 toll road. Yet I notice that new roads are being built to Henry County that people get to drive on for free. Why isn’t that a scandal?

  2. RiverRat says:

    Y’know, steve, I think most rail advocates would prefer to skip the Lovejoy line and tackle the Atlanta-Athens line. They have a willing population and a much stronger political will for the idea. any way to skip the lovejoy line and move towards the Atlanta-Athens idea? most of your complaints seem to be focused around the specifics of the lovejoy line, anyway – be careful not to confuse the possibly real problems with the execution with the strong support and real feasibility of rail if it is done right.

  3. Flatpickpaul says:

    Once again, Mr. Davis (who failed to answer my question about his certainty that regional funding for alternative transportation will fail) forces me to repost some facts about commuter rail. And the reason progress on these seven spokes has been excruciatingsly slow is due 1: to the high level of authority granted to the governor’s office of this state, and 2. that transportation options in this state (and economic development options as well) are being held hostage by the roadbuilders and the politicians whose campaigns and swank parties they fund.

    A few facts on commuter rail.
    Public Support – A recent state-wide poll by the AJC indicates support for the Atlanta to Athens line at 62 percent.

    Regional comparables – the Virginia Railway Express’ average daily ridership has exceeded 28,000 in less than nine years in service.

    According to the ARC’s approved Transportation Improvement Plan, the average cost per lane mile of improving Interstate Highways in Metro Atlanta is $18.19 million. One mile of commuter rail track – which can operate in both AM and PM directions – costs $5.32 million.

    AAA estimates the average cost to operate a private automobile at 52.2 cents per mile – a very conservative estimate. A round trip commute from Lawrenceville to Atlanta and back (64 miles) costs $33.41. From Atlanta to Lovejoy roundtrip: $24.01, Atlanta to Macon: 87.70

    Safety – A 2005 federal study showed that a person riding a commuter train is 25 times safer than a person riding in an automobile.

    Economic Development – A 1999 Texas case study (Miller, Robison & Lahr) found that within five years of the opening of Dallas’ new commuter rail line, private businesses invested over $1 billion near the line’s rail stations. The same study found that for each 1% of regional travel shifted from automobile to public transit increases regional income by $2.9 million, resulting in 226 additional regional jobs.

    Another great resource – Center for Transportation Excellence – http://www.cfte.org

    My original question to Mr. Davis: Mr. Davis, how can you be so certain that there will be no regional tax to pay for commuter rail?

  4. Greg Greene says:

    Rep. Davis,
    With due respect, the state spent $22 million over 10 years on commuter rail, and has nothing to show, because … the lege has spent the last ten years dickering around on this issue, which closed off any chance of having something to show. You can call that waste — but a better example of circular reasoning, I’d be hard put to find.

  5. Dannis Cole says:

    Rep. Davis,
    I wish you and more of our government leaders would take transit seriously! It takes planning to get a project underway, and planning costs money. When will Georgia change the state constitution so that gas tax can be used for transit projects also? When will our local leaders decide to match the federal money available so that transit can grow? Intercity bus service is declining, and needs to be subsidized by local and state sources, so small towns are not cut off from cities. In Cuthbert, GA, a small town in Randolph County, south of Columbus, there is no transit system. About 60% of people who rent have no car. Most counties in GA have a county transit system on a dial-a-ride basis, but most are not allowed to cross county lines. In Metro Atlanta, MARTA and Gwinnett County Transit are not allowed to drop a person off within .5 mi of the county line. You may ride GCT from a MARTA station, but you may not get off near a county line. If you wished to go from Gwinnett to Hall, it is impossible by transit. Greyhound is not accessible from GCT. Habersham County has a transit system, but Hall and Habersham do not connect. There is a plan to connect all transit systems, but why is there no funding for it? If people want transit, why are our local government leaders ignoring us? I have not been able to drive for 10 years now. If you were in my wheelchair, and had to depend on transit, you would give it funding. I spent four hours on MARTA to go from Pleasantdale Rd in Doraville to the PAWS animal shelter to get a cat last February [that was one way]. More people would take MARTA if there were more trains and buses. MARTA does an excellent job with its funding, and in 25 years of riding it, I have spoken with drivers, customer service folks, maintenance workers, and public safety personnel. Nearly all have been friendly, courteous, and helpful to me. I have gotten where I needed to go safely, if not quickly. I watched the growth of the rail system. I watched as MARTA has tried neat ideas like the suburban connector buses [Remember the A, B, C and D Crosstown buses?]. If MARTA had 2% sales tax instead of one, just think how they could expand! Let MARTA run GRTA and take care of the state’s transit needs. All it needs is funding. We taxpayers need to write all our local leaders and keep telling them we want transit. With the growth of the elderly population, we can’t afford to wait to provide transportation, in all of Georgia, not just the large cities. Other medium-sized cities should follow Albany. The Greyhound station is also their Multi-Modal Transportation Facility. I used it in October. How easy it was to get around Albany without a car, and in a wheelchair, too! We visited Anniston, AL on AMTRAK in November, and used their transit system to visit two museums. When transit works, it is a beautiful thing. Georgia, look out, because Alabama is connecting its transit, and will soon surpass us in that area. Someone from DOT needs to update the Georgia Transit page. Most of the email addresses and phone numbers for Southwest Georgia are no longer good, and it was last updated in 2003. What a sad statement for GADOT’s atttitude about the importance of transit in this state.

  6. TM2000 says:

    Gentlemen let me inform you that Mr. Davis claims that anybody who supports rail is a stupid person who lives in a world of fantasy and that he has all the facts. He claims that nationwide transit systems receive low ridership. However after election day I sent him about 5 news articles that refuted his point including one that showed that Salt Lake City’s light rail system has had over 50 million passengers in the last 7 years alone and that it has reduced traffic and pollution substantially. All he could say in response was, “thanks for the articles.” He wants people to believe that the roads are self financing but even in his home county of Henry local general sales taxes have been raised to help pay for road improvements not to mention the fact that the GA constitution does not allow fuel taxes to pay for highway patrol. Begin to question the source here gentlemen.

  7. All of my comments are backed by facts and proof. This audit confirms 2 years worth of information that I have been collecting and distributing. The truth hurts and sometimes people dont want to hear the truth.

    River rat, the reality of the situation is that with all of the problems surrounding the Atl – Lovejoy – Macon line is that this was the best opportunity for commuter rail to survive in this state. GDOT transfered all funds from the Athens line as well as the Bremen line, the Canton line, and the Senoia line to pool the money on their best conceivable chance of success. Well the facts show this is not a viable option either and they spent $26 million of our dollars trying to prove otherwise. Commuter rail will not work in Georgia! Not in Lovejoy, Not in Athens or anywhere else. This same audits shows that CSX has told GDOT for over 10 years that the Athens frieght line is to profitable to share time and space with passenger rail. CSX owns the line and it will take much more $ to persuade them to share. We also know that the current prediction of $330 million or more is not even close, if another line has to be laid it will cost over a $1 Billion dollars and still serve less 1% percent of population. The Brain Train is just a gimmick to play on peoples emotion. Connecting these Universities will do nothing to relieve congestion and certainly will not enhance anyone’s learning experience!

    I have lost some battles and I have won some but the reality is I am fighting for the truth and disclosure of accurate information. I also seek to give each of you, regardless of your views, the ability to decide by referendum if we as a State or even local area should support a system with such costs with our tax dollars.

  8. TM2000 says:

    Joe I suggest you do some more research. Starting in places like Dallas and Salt Lake City. If commuter rail won’t work then why has Salt Lake City’s system had over 50 million passengers since late 1999? It’s a public investment just like our public university system, and it yields benefits. In Utah it has reduced congestion and pollution.

  9. Trackboy1 says:

    Hey Steve Davis,
    I’m the biggest fiscal conservative you’ll meet, and I realize something: Not Everyone drives! My 71 yr. old father would rather take a train into the city, and I, for his safety and especially for other drivers, would rather him take a train into the city. There’s a huge aging population in this state, who value their mobility, and who’d like to take a train not just into the city, but down to Macon, Savannah, Athens, etc.
    There’s also a surprisingly number of adults with health issues (eyesight, etc.) or disabilities, that need transportation alternatives.
    I don’t like to EVER see one penny of my taxpayer money wasted. But for GDOT to propose f-ing BILLIONS in spending for drivers only, without providing a matrix of transportation options, is bullshit.
    Metro-Chicago is fairly similar to metro-Atlanta. Go visist Orland Park, Illinois, which could be Marietta or Dunwoody, and workers there take all options to the big city: their cars, the bus, and the train (and even bike paths & lanes).
    Go travel this country a little bit Steve-O before you annoint yourself as the holy prophet of transportation in GA.

  10. Steve, these guys make a good point. The Republicans want to eliminate the income tax for seniors, which would make Georgia and metro Atlanta a haven for senior transplants.

    Yet, a lot of these people can’t drive for safety reasons (their own and others). How are they going to get around and SPEND all that money they are saving by not paying income taxes if they’re stuck at home all day?

  11. joe says:

    TM2000,

    “Joe I suggest you do some more research. Starting in places like Dallas and Salt Lake City.”

    There is a difference between inter and intra city rail. The proposals for Atlanta-Lovejoy-Macon and for Atlanta-Macon are intercity.

    New York, Boston, Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Atlanta all have intracity rail. If you want to compare those to show how MARTA is great, or to show how MARTA could improve, then that is fine.

    For intercity rail, I suggest that you do some more research. Please use sources that are as credible as the GAO.

  12. dontbruisethegin says:

    Rep. Davis–

    The Georgia’s legislature’s lack of attention to a transportation system that relies on something besides a fossil-fuel-burning hunk of metal requiring ever growing miles of concrete, will lead Georgia into the land of non-competitiveness with it’s Sunbelt brethren. I’m so tired of all the whining about how much mass transit costs. Well guess what, roads ain’t free. I’ve lived in the suburbs of Atlanta for more than ten years and I want to sit my butt on a train where I can be both productive and on time to my destination. In fact, I’m so tired of the lack of action from you and those like you, that my husband and I are making plans to pull up stakes and take our $250,000-a-year household to another city where progressive ideas like getting people out of cars and onto trains isn’t shunned. Professionals like us want our government to be responsive to the needs of a changing citizenry, not to a handful of road-building lobbyists and their toadies at the capitol. The economic engine of the state that is Atlanta, will fall behind other Sunbelt cities like Orlando, Dallas, and Charlotte that are aggressively building trains because these cities know that having a serious mass transit program makes their community all the more attractive to forward-thinking industries and individuals who will flock there.

    Also, just wait until gas hits $5-6.00 a gallon like in Europe, and you will hear your constituents shrieking and cursing your name for not acting when you should. Don’t think it will get there? That’s not a bet I would make. All it would take would be for Venezuela’s Chavez to strike an exclusive deal with China and cut us out. Think he won’t jump on the opportunity when it comes?

  13. TM2000 says:

    Well Joe I don’t know much about the GAO, but I do know that a train full of middle class and upper class people will take cars off the road. Chicago’s metra receives hundreds of thousands of daily passengers, taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road, that’s a lot of oil saved right there.

  14. joe says:

    TM2000,

    I will not argue against something like the MARTA rail system. I think that it is possible to make it efficient enough that it does not lose money, and does not require major subsidies.

    The report that Rep. Davis referred to, and the GAO report that I cited talk about things like AMTRAK, the “Brain Train”, or even the Atlanta-Lovejoy line. No intercity line like that can exist without major subsidies.

    I myself would like to ride the rails and get off of the roads, but I live in a rural part of Henry, and the nearest MARTA station is at the airport. This would still be true if somebody spends my tax money to finance an Atlanta-Lovejoy line.

  15. cyburke says:

    Steve –

    Let me reiterate what several have already said: you and other like-minded legislators beholden to road builders are the reason that rail has remains stalled after 10 years and 20+ million dollars.

    Shame on you for assigning the blame to the ones that have fought so hard to implement alternative transportation. Especially shameful is your malicious attempt to demonize Carl Rhodenizer.

  16. TM2000 says:

    You know Joe subsidy is such a derrogated term that many people do not realize how much we enjoy another government program that is heavily subsidized. The public university systems. Education is something that the private sector can provide yet we still subsidize our public universities, heavily. The private sector can provide transportation, this is true, what they cannot provide is a fuel efficient transportation system that is cost effective. The subsidies are the price we pay for conservation, reduced congestion, and safer roads.

  17. Jason Pye says:

    …subsidy is such a derrogated term…

    How about pork projects, because that’s what they are.

    Roads are listed as a function of the government under Article 1, Section8 of the Constitution.

  18. joe says:

    subsidy is such a derrogated term

    Perhaps we should get rid of all of them. They are nothing more than a re-distribution of monies. This is also called socialism.

  19. TM2000 says:

    Yes those words are in the constitution but there is never any clear cut definition because there are many who consider railroads to fall under the roads category (that’s the historical purpose of the Supreme Court, to clear up the ambiguities and define the law). And education is not listed under that section either, so I guess in your view that would make public universities pork projects along with parks. I know how the libertarians see parks, something that the government should have no part in, perhaps that is why their goal is to sell off our national park system, you can auction off Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon over my dead body. FACT: Americans love their parks. FACT: No libertarian has ever won the presidency, a governorship, or a single seat in congress.

    As for subsidies being socialism, you can call it whatever you want Joe but that doesn’t change the fact that people are very passionate about their children’s education or the fact that many of these new transit systems were built by voter approved funds.

  20. Jason Pye says:

    You can’t rewrite the Constitution as you go along to fit whatever you want it to. The Constitution is specific as to what the responsibilities of Congress are.

    No libertarian has ever won the presidency, a governorship, or a single seat in congress.
    Jeff Flake and Ron Paul are both libertarians and they are both in Congress.

    Government has no business subsidizing things that easily could be provided by private enterprise (ie. education, rail).

    This isn’t about my affiliation or my philosophy (which is capitalism, not libertarianism). You cannot defend your position so you pick out something to attack me.

  21. TM2000 says:

    Also Jason, if a pork project is something that helps take cars off the road thereby reducing traffic and pollution, as it has in many other cities, then call me a man with a big appetite for pork.

  22. TM2000 says:

    I am not talking about rewriting the constitution, I am talking about clearing up ambiguities. And I just checked out their websites, those two representatives are republicans, and your website says that you are a libertarian.
    As for my position, I do support subsidies in both education and transportation because it does yield benefits. And I can name hundreds of politicians and millions of Americans who agree with me.

  23. TM2000 says:

    Lets not forget that the words are post offices and roads, notice how the word post comes before the word road in that sentence.

  24. Jason Pye says:

    You said “libertarian,” not “Libertarian.” Both are philosophical libertarians that have ideals and values very similar to my own.

    I don’t give a damn who or what you can name. Since the federal government became involved in education, the system has gotten gradually worse to where we are now spending $12,000+ per child, while private schools spend less than half that amount and get better results.

    As far as reducing traffic…on average than one out of every ten people will use rail. The Metro in DC is a clear example of a big government project that the federal government keeps throwing our money into and getting terrible results.

    The very definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

  25. TM2000 says:

    And as I mentioned earlier, clean competitive transporation is not something the private sector can provide, as Bush said, America is addicted to oil and he is pushing for other sources of energy but another part of this mission is other sources of transportation. Bush did get a lot of applaus on those points of the address.

  26. Jason Pye says:

    It says “post roads,” the purpose of the Supreme Court is not to clear up “ambiguities,” its to judge whether legislation steps over its Constitutional authority.

    If you want to clear up an ambiguity, the Constitution lays out the process for that, by amending it.

  27. TM2000 says:

    Also one in ten isn’t exactly accurate. Check out this article, 50 million in 7 years in a city the size of Salt Lake City is definately a lot more than 1 in 10.

    http://nn.byu.edu/story.cfm/61659

    Also I want to see where you are getting this information about education.
    I am a big advocate of school vouchers and charter schools. I have generally read positive results about those.

  28. Jason Pye says:

    And as I mentioned earlier, clean competitive transporation is not something the private sector can provide…

    The worst polluter in the country is the federal government.

  29. TM2000 says:

    Yes it does say post roads, and railroads and waterways fall were defined as post roads.
    And as for the statement about the Supreme Court, if they were never orignally intended to do what they do, and I have heard other people make the same argument, then that intention has failed, and now it is pretty much accepted under common law that they clear up ambiguities.

  30. TM2000 says:

    I have heard that about the federal government but have not seen enough evidence to confirm or disconfirm that statement.

  31. Jason Pye says:

    Did I say everyone? I said “on average.”

    Also, the numbers you are using could easily be skewed (how much, I don’t know) to due the 2002 Winter Olympics being held in that city.

  32. Jason Pye says:

    I get a lot of my education information from the Cato Institute, some from the Heritage Foundation.

    I can’t remember specific reports of the top of my head, but John Stossel has done a report called Stupid in America that is a good example of what I’m saying.

  33. TM2000 says:

    The winter olympics were only there for 18 days, and UTA statistics show over 40,000 passengers daily during the olympics. Now 18 days out of a period of seven years is pretty small. Seven years is over 2000 days.

  34. TM2000 says:

    Well John Stossel is an interesting guy, but I’ve never heard him address anything like our HOPE scholarship program.

  35. Jason Pye says:

    The 50 million number is used to make it look impressive.

    It equates to around 3% of Salt Lake County that ride it per day, that’s not including surrounding areas that may or may not commute in to Salt Lake. After you factor in surrounding counties, the number is going to come down.

  36. Jason Pye says:

    Last year the largest earmark (pork) in Congressional history was approved to bail the Metro out of trouble because ridership went flat and the rail wasn’t making enough money to bail it’s self out of trouble.

    There are around 8 million people in the Metro DC area, which includes parts of Northern Virginia and Maryland.

    Another interesting part about the Utah rail is how cheap it is to ride in contrast to the Atlanta-Lovejoy line, which will cost over $12 for a round trip.

  37. Jason Pye says:

    Public school perform very close at more than twice the cost? Is that supposed to make sense?

    I’d love to argue all night, but I have to work tomorrow.

  38. TM2000 says:

    There are 8 million in the DC area including Baltimore, those ridership figures were not for the Baltimore area, they have their own transit system, DC’s metro does not extend into Baltimore.

    The 50 million is used to make it look impressive. Did you just make up that assumption? UTA will soon have a suburban commuter rail service, the costs of which are being paid for by voter approved funds, it will be interesting to see where ridership goes considering the high ridership of TRAX.

    When you consider $12 versus the cost of gas and parking and car maintenence the price is actually pretty competitive.

    The article also mentions that the localities are having their own budget shortfalls and that’s not a surprise considering the housing market slowdown.

  39. TM2000 says:

    Did you also make up that 3% figure for the Salt Lake Area? You know it may well be 3% for the entire Salt Lake Region but the TRAX system is a tiny rail system, it’s numbers for it’s size and the area it serves are phenomenal, there are several planned extensions coming up which will only make the ridership higher.

  40. gatormathis says:

    What if:
    New York had to try and build its train and subway system today. We can’t imagine how much it would cost to build the infrastructe. Then add in the factor of todays litigous society, and the cost of lawsuits that would hinder it. They done it years and years ago. Now anyone else who wants one, first figures out, hell, we can’t afford this.

    The main reason that “CSX” dosen’t want to add a passenger system in is because of liability.

    One passenger train derailment or crash just isn’t the same as a freight train mishap.

    Each passenger becomes a possible multi-million dollar liability, whereas in freight, you just replace the value of the load.

    The odds of such a mishap occuring? It would definitely happen one day.

  41. TM2000 says:

    Lawsuits over carwrecks happen all the time. And as for New York, yes it would be expensive to build today, however their tax base way beyond ours, they have spent nearly the past 40 years constructing the New York City water tunnel, that has not been cheap either. But one thing that New York cannot afford is to have all of their citizens stuck in congestion and be late for work. The city is a big economic engine.

  42. cyburke says:

    The day after Rep. Davis’ post, Henry County commuters experienced a 2 1/2 hour trip just between Hartsfield International Airport and downtown Atlanta. This will become a common occurrence if we succumb to Davis’ scare tactics.

    To put things in perspective: Gov. Perdue wants to spend $20 million in one year (versus 10 years) for his “Go Fish Georgia” designed to “turn Georgia into a fisherman’s paradise.”

  43. Bill Simon says:

    Rep. Davis,

    If you think that audit was eye-opening on the amount wasted on “studies,” just wait until the Department of Audits gets around to finding out how much money has been wasted by GRTA for similar mind-boggling, yet worthless “studies.”

    ….AND, the MOST money wasted will be the money wasted while the agency has been under Republican Steve Stancil’s guiding hand.

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