A monorail company president pitched his plan for a Perimeter Center system to the Perimeter Business Alliance at a May 13 panel discussion on possible alternative mass transit systems.
“You don’t start with the answer. You start with what the problem is,” said Bill Owen, president of Marietta-based Owen Transit Group, who said his 12-mile monorail loop, dubbed the “HighRoad,” is the solution to Perimeter Centers’ traffic snarls and lack of MARTA connections. He spoke with a scale model of the monorail sitting before him.
In just the past six months, talk of a Perimeter monorail or similar futuristic mass transit has rapidly shifted from Disneyland jokes to official studies in Brookhaven and Sandy Springs. Now the three Perimeter Center cities, which also include Dunwoody, and the Perimeter Center Improvement Districts are collaborating on a study for securing right-of-way and issuing a request for proposals for some alternative transit system.
Owen is one of several entrepreneurs who have emerged in recent months to pitch everything from magnetic-levitation trains to gondola systems hanging from cables. Owen said he sent his HighRoad proposal to Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul and was told he’ll be among those sent the eventual request for proposals. Owen said he asked to be part of the panel after the business alliance invited him to attend as an audience member.
The May 13 Perimeter Business Alliance panel at the Westin Atlanta Perimeter North hotel in Sandy Springs was less about whether an alternative transit system is a good idea—most people seemed to agree it is—and more about how to plan one. Ben Limmer, MARTA’s assistant general manager for planning, and Cain Williamson, manager of the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Mobility Programs Division, covered those issues. Also on the panel was Kenneth Williams, a transportation systems director at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which uses an elevated “SkyTrain” to shuttle passengers.
The Perimeter Center system is roughly envisioned as a circulator loop helping with “last-mile connectivity,” a buzzword for making it easier for people to get to and from MARTA rail stations without a car. Bob Voyles, chair of the business alliance, was among officials saying they need to update their monorail expertise, currently limited to Disneyland or the old “Pink Pig” novelty ride at Rich’s department store.
“If we want to have successful transit-oriented development, we’re going to have to solve that last-mile [connectivity] problem,” Voyles said.
Williams said the airport’s two train systems, which carry millions of riders a year, show the possibilities for transit. Built in 2009, the SkyTrain eliminated 125 shuttle buses, reducing passenger travel times and air pollution, he said.
Limmer and Williamson outlined the many planning issues with an alternative transit system: construction and operating costs; physical and fare connection to MARTA; noise and vibrations; management; environmental impacts; “aesthetic issues.”
Limmer said he believes MARTA would benefit from “having a smaller-scale, more intimate connection around the Perimeter.” To be successful, it needs to be thought of as a “total system” in collaboration with MARTA, he said.
With so many possible alternative transit systems—most of them never actually built anywhere in the country—choosing the right innovative technology is another challenge, Williamson said.
“You want to be a little ahead of the game, but not too far ahead of the game,” he said.
Mayor Paul, who did not attend the discussion, made a similar point in a recent interview. “We don’t want to be buying Beta when it’s VHS,” he said of alternative transit technology. “You don’t want to get caught in a technology warp…At the same time, we’re not waiting ’til technology shakes out.”
Owen’s HighRoad is both a new and old idea. He put his monorail idea together in 1985, pitching a region-wide system with a branch running across the top-end Perimeter and along Ga. 400 and I-75. But he has no actual test model and acknowledged that “nobody’s built this before, so there’s no history.”
However, Owen is convinced he has good cost estimates from his informal group of engineers and suppliers for a Perimeter Center loop. In an interview, he said the plan is a 12-mile monorail looping through the business district and the Pill Hill medical center.
The 140-passenger cars could reach top speeds of 80 mph. He estimated construction costs at $25 million per mile, or $300 million total, which he claimed could be covered by bonds and fares with no tax dollars. His projected fare would be 50 cents a mile. Among cost savings: an automated, driver-less system and offices and maintenance facilities built into the stations.
Brookhaven City Council member Joe Gebbia, who has proposed a monorail or similar transit in his area, was among the attendees. After the panel, Gebbia and Brookhaven Public Works Director Richard Meehan stood at the monorail model, discussing local possibilities with Owen Transit’s David Owen.
Other officials in attendance were supportive of the Perimeter Center circulator concept.
“I’ve seen places where it has worked,” said state Rep. Tom Taylor of Dunwoody, who sits on MARTA’s oversight board. Taylor said he visited Bangkok, Thailand before and after a monorail system was built there, and he said it made a noticeable traffic and air quality difference.
Former DeKalb County CEO Liane Levetan, who pushed for MARTA’s Red Line rail extension into the area in the 1990s, said it’s time for new connectivity ideas.
“Everyone knows I’m a bottom-line person. They tell me I was the champion for MARTA and you see what that has brought,” Levetan said. She emphasized collaboration among the Perimeter Center governments as key to finding a system that’s a real solution.