The city of Sandy Springs’ review of a proposed Sandy Springs monorail will be token at best, officials say. Meanwhile, a top monorail advocate says a local system could be not only feasible, but even a money-maker.
“If you build it right, you can actually turn a profit,” said Kim Pedersen, president of the California-based Monorail Society and author of the new book “Monorails: Trains of the Future—Now Arriving.” Monorails are “really quite popular right now”—at least in other countries like South Korea and India, he said.
The monorail idea was floated last month by Sandy Springs Planning Commission Chairman Lee Duncan as a solution to traffic snarls. He suggested a monorail loop connecting downtown Sandy Springs to MARTA stations and other Perimeter Center locations. Assistant City Manager Jim Tolbert said in response that city consultants would “seriously review” the idea.
The review won’t really be that serious. City spokeswoman Sharon Kraun said the consultants developing a new land-use plan are tasked with addressing any idea raised in public comments. The monorail will be treated as just one of those comments, with no particular plan or budget to analyze. Asked if it will be a “back-of-the-envelope” type of calculation, City Councilman Tibby DeJulio said, “I think that may be overstating it.”
Pedersen said it’s common for U.S. cities to dismiss monorail proposals, assuming they would be excessively expensive. Sometimes smaller cities look at the price tags of big-city monorail systems and “get some frightening numbers,” he said.
But, he added, smaller monorails are available and ones operating in Las Vegas and Seattle are profitable.
“Now would a city with 100,000 [people] benefit from monorail? Certainly, if they get the proper scaled monorail…,” he said.
The monorail idea also drew the attention of Brookhaven City Councilman Joe Gebbia, who recently spoke positively about it during a MARTA presentation at his city’s council meeting.
Pedersen is not a transit engineer, just a longtime monorail enthusiast. He has visited Atlanta, but is not directly familiar with Sandy Springs. However, he said there are precedents for the kind of system Duncan suggested and advantages to a monorail in a dense, commuter-traffic city.
Tokyo has a large-scale version of a monorail connecting to train-based public transit as well as the airport, Pedersen said. It opened in 1964 for the Olympics.
New monorails are springing up in dense cities like Mumbai, India and São Paulo, Brazil. Unlike buses, they avoid traffic, and unlike trains, they can be built on small footprints since they are usually elevated on piers.
“You just have to dig a hole every 150 feet or something like that,” Pedersen said. “With a monorail, you can plop it along any roadway and not take up [all the space].”
Monorails typically have lower construction and maintenance costs than traditional rail, meaning they are the rare type of mass transit that can turn a profit, Pedersen said. In many cases, a private company runs them.
“It’s basically an electric bus running on a very small…concrete beam,” he said.
In the U.S., monorails have two big image problems—their connection with Disney theme parks, which popularized them in the 1950s, and a 1993 episode of the TV comedy “The Simpsons” about a con man selling a used monorail to a city.
The lingering laughter from “The Simpsons” is “bittersweet,” Pedersen said. “I think it’s hilarious,” he said of the episode, but it also shows “how many people make their educated opinion on transit [based on] cartoon shows.”
And Pedersen said it’s “ironic” that Walt Disney used monorails as practical mass transit—“a highway in the sky”—only to see them “typecast as a ride for amusement parks.” Still, Disney remains a way for people to use monorails firsthand and still sparks enthusiasm from the general public, if not from city leaders, he said.
“Despite ‘The Simpsons’ and theme parks, people think [monorails are] a good idea from [their experiences] going to Disney World,” Pedersen said.