Express buses cheaper, more effective than rail or BRT, but DOT study only gives them lip service

By Ron Sifen

Last week, Cobb DOT presented its interim report on the Connect Cobb – Northwest Transit Corridor Alternatives Analysis.

I have been talking about huge cost differentials for different kinds of transit for a long time. This report confirms how extreme these differentials are. (Please note that Cobb presented national averages, and not Cobb-specific cost projections for this corridor.)

Costs to build:

* Light rail: $40 million to $120 million per mile

* Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT): $4 million to $50 million per mile

* Express Bus: $1 million to $2 million per mile.

Annual costs to operate and maintain:

* Light rail: $13 million to $33 million

* Bus Rapid Transit: $4 million to $29 million

* Express Bus: $4 million to $10 million

The next stage of the study is supposed to estimate costs specifically for this project. However, Cobb has previously estimated a price tag of $1.2 billion for light rail, just to get 10 miles from the Arts Center MARTA Station to Cumberland. That is $120 million per mile. This presumes not having to purchase any right-of-way in the Interstate 75 corridor, and not having to “modify” the existing roadway. With additional right-of-way and roadway costs from Arts Center to Acworth, light rail along Cobb Parkway would likely exceed $120 million per mile.

Even if they can contain the costs to build light rail to only $120 million per mile, the cost of building 25 miles (from Arts Center to Acworth) comes out to $3 billion. The TSPLOST provides $689 million. That is a $2.3 billion shortfall, even with no cost overruns. And previous studies have identified obstacles that will be very expensive to overcome.

Over the last few weeks, Cobb County has repeatedly insisted that this project will have to be a bus project, unless it can come up with additional funding.

While I am happy to hear these verbal assurances of fiscal responsibility, the project on the TSPLOST projects list explicitly provides for this project to be able to morph into light rail, if the Alternatives Analysis winds up recommending light rail. The language does not contain any fiscal responsibility exceptions. The same group that decided that cost-effectiveness was irrelevant when they put together the TSPLOST projects list is the same group that will decide whether fiscal responsibility is relevant when they decide whether to morph this project into light rail, despite a multi-billion-dollar funding shortfall.

Cobb’s numbers suggest that the cost to build light rail is likely to be at least 60 times more expensive than express bus. Cobb’s numbers suggest that the cost to operate and maintain light rail is likely to be at least triple what express bus would cost.

Cobb had also already estimated operating and maintenance costs of $9.6 million per year for rail, just to get from Cumberland to Arts Center. Since then, Cobb has added additional stations, which will add to the cost. Clearly, the annual operating and maintenance costs are going to be near the high end of the typical national cost range. There is no long term, sustainable funding source to pay for these costs without coming back to taxpayers for even more tax increases.

The interim report also discusses BRT. There are lots of BRT variations. They can simply plan on implementing $689 million of “improvements.” Even with expensive enhancements, like “queue jumper lanes,” BRT with lots of stops along Cobb Parkway will not provide a time-competitive alternative for suburban commuters.

The only people who will truly benefit from the BRT option are the companies who will be paid to study it and perhaps implement it. Certainly, it will not be a benefit to commuters, and it will not be a benefit to taxpayers.

The permanent annual operating and maintenance costs for BRT will also require huge additional taxpayer subsidies forever. The MDJ recently reported that Commission Chairman Tim Lee recently said that if taxpayers do not agree to extend the increased sales tax after 10 years, or agree to some other new taxes, that Cobb could shut down the BRT service after the 10 years and sell off the buses.

Cobb is giving extensive lip service to the inclusion of “express bus” in the alternatives analysis study. However, Cobb has repeatedly refused to specifically evaluate “express buses operating in the soon-to-be-built I-75 / I-575 managed lanes.” Instead, they have “express bus” buried as a variation within a TSM (transportation systems management) category. This enables the county to shield light rail from “inconvenient” performance and cost comparisons to “express bus operating in the managed lanes.” It also enables the county to degrade the projected performance of express bus by burdening it with extra stops and an inferior route.

Ultimately, the total permanent taxpayer subsidy for “express bus operating in the managed lanes” is likely to be a tiny fraction of the taxpayer subsidy for light rail. Furthermore, “express bus operating in the managed lanes” is likely to do an outright better job than light rail of actually reducing traffic congestion and reducing commute times.

Ron Sifen of Vinings is president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCCC. All articles are posted with the author’s permission.

Article Printed in the Marietta Daily Journal on June 6, 2012

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