The Livable Communities Coalition

Working to improve Atlanta's quality of life through smart growth

Let’s not presume the worst: a reality check

Livable Communities Coalition executive director Ray Christman

A message from Livable Communities Coalition executive director Ray Christman:

The Georgia Regional Transportation Authority released its cost estimates on the projects the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable will consider for the final project list.

Rather than clarify the picture, the agency’s estimates complicate the decision-making process for the roundtable.

Of particular concern to transit advocates is the impression GRTA’s numbers create: mainly, that transit projects are defined by cost overruns.

GRTA staff justify their decision to build in 30 percent cost overruns into their estimate by pointing to Denver’s experience in constructing its light rail line.

While it is true that Denver experienced cost overruns, it is misleading to suggest that cost overruns are part and parcel to transit projects.

The organization, Light Rail Now, points to a 1999 Government Accountability Office report that shows 60 percent of light rail projects had been completed on time and within budget, and that 79 percent had been completed on time and within 7 percent of projected budget.

Impressively, St. Louis constructed $355 million and $335 million segments of MetroLink on-time and under budget.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit accomplished similar results with the construction of their North Central and Northeast lines.

A University of Florida study reveals that construction delays and cost overruns are typical of highway construction projects, too. The University of Florida points to a number of problems from design to bidding, delaying completion and causing cost overruns. They recommend utilizing performance-based contracting standards to keep projects on-time and on-budget.

Part of the work that is taking place right now is to identify the projects that are best-suited in terms of planning, design and performance to be included in the final list. Arguably, it distorts the process to presume cost overruns on projects that best meet these criteria. After all, cost overruns are caused by the unexpected.

Meanwhile, the roundtables has asked GRTA to re-evaluate their criteria.

The roundtable also found it problematic that GRTA applied 20 years of operations and maintenance to the transit projects included on the list. The agency applied this standard even though the lifetime of the proposed transportation tax will only be 10 years.

It appears the summer of listening, as Atlanta Regional Commission external affairs manager Kathryn Lawler has described the roundtable’s work, must now compete with the politics that are inevitable as the project list gains definition.

Each county – and city – in the 10-county region has its defined interests in the project lists, but the message all along has been developing a list that works for entire county and is sufficiently appealing to voters to ensure the work that needs to be done to move the region forward.

To help that effort, there needs to be a commitment to presenting information that represents an accurate accounting of building a transportation network that includes pedestrians, cars, bikes, buses and trains.

Fair Share for Transit has made the case that the transportation investments the region needs right now are transit projects. We have shared our recommendation that the roundtable include $4 billion-worth (or 66 percent) of transit projects on their final list.

We cannot afford politics to get in the way of building a true regional transportation network. But, first, we must get the right list that communicates that vision.

There are lessons to be learned from Denver, but the lesson should not be that transit is inherently more prone to cost overruns.

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