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Study finds 'compelling' number would ride commuter rail

By Daniel Silliman

dsilliman@news-daily.com

A new study, commissioned by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, estimates the proposed commuter rail line from Atlanta to Griffin would carry between 1,440 and 1,790 passengers every weekday, depending on the number of trains.

The ridership study, done by R.L. Banks and Associates and completed earlier this month, "confirms commuter rail to be an attainable, viable means to connect Atlanta's outlying communities to the ever-growing economic engine Atlanta is today, and is projected to be in the next 20-30 years," according to the report's authors.

The projected ridership on the first leg of the Atlanta to Macon line is called "compelling," and all seven rail-corridor plans are called "feasible."

The study forecasts ridership by looking at current and projected populations surrounding the theoretical rail line, the number of people who live within five miles of each planned train station, and the number of those people who work near a train station, and "the propensity for those employees to choose commuter rail."

The Georgia Association of Railroad Passengers praised the report and said it should be a wake-up call for Georgia.

Steve Vogel, president of the rail advocacy group, said the study shows "the ridership is there" and it shows that state officials should "stop dragging their feet."

Georgia State Rep. Steve Davis (R-McDonough), an active opponent of the commuter rail line, said he hasn't seen the recent study, but thinks those rider numbers may be high estimates.

Even if the numbers are accurate, Davis said, commuter rail is a bad idea. "You've got 270,000 residents up there in Clayton County and you're going to tax all of them so 1,400 people can ride the train?" he asked. "It serves less than one half of one percent of the population. It is not going to make a dent [in traffic congestion] and you're going to have enormous ongoing subsidies to keep it running."

The obstacle to building a commuter rail system, in fact, has not been low ridership estimates, but an expected operating-budget shortfall. On the south side of Atlanta, the rail project stalled, and negotiations between the Georgia Department of Transportation and the company which owns the railroad tracks stalled, when it became clear that no government entity was signed on to pay for operating costs, which are expected to exceed state and federal funding.

Along those lines, the study notes that no commuter rail system in the world is funded solely by riders' fares. All commuter systems are subsidized, regardless of ridership.

"Look," Davis said, "those 1,400 people who want to ride the train, we can give them all limo rides, for 20 years, for the same amount of money that it costs to build the rail, not even counting ongoing subsidies."

Rail proponents counter that commuter rail doesn't serve only the riders, but also the drivers, who will see fewer cars on their commute, and the residents, who will see economic growth following the rail system footprint.

Los Angeles' commuter rail line, cited as a success by the recent study and proposed as a model for metro Atlanta, receives only half of its funding from the farebox. The rest is provided by a four-county sales tax, levied through a multi-county joint-powers authority.

The study looked at Los Angeles and the systems of three other "peer cities" -- Dallas-Fort Worth, Southern Florida and Northern Florida. Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth were both, like Atlanta, called automobile-oriented areas, which would "never give up their cars and ride transit," the study reports. Yet both now have successful transit systems.

Ridership forecasts placed Atlanta's number of riders-per-train in the same range as the other cities.

Of the 10 largest cities in the United States, only Houston, Atlanta and Detroit don't have commuter rail, and Houston is considering it. Some metro areas significantly smaller than Atlanta -- Seattle-Tacoma, San Diego and Baltimore -- have successful commuter rail lines, the study found.

"Although this does not mean that Atlanta should also initiate commuter rail service," according to the R.L. Banks and Associates study, "it is an indication that 'the market is there.'"

It is possible that there is an even larger market of would-be train commuters, because the study did not consider development which would result from the commuter rail. The study took into consideration the Atlanta Regional Commissions' projected population growth, but did not "take into account the land-use changes that will likely be driven by a commuter rail network, or increasing gas prices."

For that reason, many of the study's steering committee members believe commuter rail "will be an even more attractive option to metro area workers than the conservative methodology in this report indicates."