Monorail systems recently proposed by city officials in Brookhaven and Sandy Springs aren’t the first time someone local has pitched alternative, elevated trains. In 2011, a Marietta company presented plans for a “maglev” train connecting Cobb County and Perimeter Mall—and the firm’s president says he’d like to bid on any new Brookhaven and Sandy Springs systems.
“We’d be very interested in both those projects,” said Tony Morris, president and CEO of American Maglev Technology. “Anyone who has been around Perimeter Mall for 30 years at 5 p.m. knows something has to be done…I’d love to see something happen, whether it’s us or somebody else.”
AMT built one of the world’s few maglev test tracks in Powder Springs in 2006 and is planning an Orlando maglev line, but it has yet to build a full system after several unsuccessful projects, some of which cost millions of public and private dollars.
The company’s false starts include the Perimeter Center plan and a proposed maglev line between MARTA’s Georgia State station and Turner Field. Only a few maglev trains—which slightly levitate on a powerful magnetic field rather than riding on wheels—are in commercial operation, all in East Asia.
Such lack of success has made monorails and maglevs the butt of jokes—most famously in a 1993 episode of the TV comedy “The Simpsons,” where a con man sells a used monorail to Homer Simpson’s home town by claiming there’s interest from a rival city. Brookhaven Mayor John Ernst jokingly quoted a line from that show when asked about a local monorail: “Maybe it’s more of a Shelbyville thing.”
“I look forward to reading what the $10,000 got us,” Ernst said of City Councilman Joe Gebbia’s discretionary fund expenditure for a monorail-oriented transportation study. “We’ll take a look at what it says and all the costs…and see what happens.”
Morris said that monorail-pitching officials deserve praise rather than jokes. “I want to give great credit to people who even have the guts” to propose alternative train systems, he said. “This is a very complicated subject. It’s emotional. It’s controversial.”
Elevated monorails and maglevs are both pitched by advocates as less expensive alternatives to normal rail-based mass transit. They can be built on public right of way atop pillars; may have lower maintenance costs; and some may operate automatically without drivers.
AMT’s 2011 proposal called for a 21.5-mile elevated maglev train between Kennesaw State University and the Dunwoody MARTA station. It would have run alongside I-75 and I-285, and included proposed stations in Sandy Springs on Roswell Road and at the King and Queen buildings at the Concourse office park.
“From our standpoint, that was a very logical project,” Morris said. “It’s even gotten better now that the Braves have absconded to Cobb County.”
Construction costs were estimated at $430 million to $645 million. AMT said that was much less expensive than standard MARTA costs. However, Cobb County officials were not convinced the math added up and declined to get aboard the plan.
Fifteen years ago, AMT was unable to complete a monorail on the campus of Virginia’s Old Dominion University amid technology problems and federal funding that didn’t come through. About $7 million in state funding was spent, according to media reports.
AMT now plans its maglev construction projects entirely with private funding, Morris said. But, he added, operating costs remain a challenge for any commuter-focused train system that has to keep fares affordable. AMT’s Cobb/Perimeter train was to have a $4 fare that included a free transfer to MARTA. But that requires some type of subsidy, he said, adding, “That’s going to be the big conundrum for [Brookhaven and Sandy Springs’ monorail ideas].”
Morris said among AMT’s ideas are tax incentive districts around train stations. Another possibility is selling advertising on the trains. “We were going to turn our vehicles into giant Coke bottles or beer bottles or hot dogs,” he said of AMT’s proposed Turner Field train.
Morris acknowledged there isn’t a simple calculation for building alternative trains, but said that’s why conversations about the Brookhaven and Sandy Springs monorail are important. Mass transit, he said, “is our destiny. It’s just not clear what [form] it’s going to be.”