Atlanta streetcar project faces scrutiny

Unclear lines of authority, management turnover at MARTA and friction between key sponsors could threaten the progress of Atlanta’s $93 million streetcar project, a consulting firm hired by the Federal Transit Administration said in its reports to the agency.

The project is already several months behind schedule and millions of dollars over the original budget. To avoid further delays, the three collaborators on the project — MARTA, the city of Atlanta and the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District — need to impose a clear chain of command and communicate better, said the Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, Delon Hampton and Associates.

The consulting firm was hired to Federal Transit Administration to monitor the project, which is partly funded by federal grants.

But officials with the three parties involved said the massive undertaking is proceeding well, especially given the complexity of carving a streetcar route between Centennial Park and the King Center. They dispute allegations of discord between them.

Boosters hope the Atlanta streetcar will transform the city’s downtown corridor and boost tourism, in-town transportation and economic development.

The start date already has been delayed from May 2013 to April 30, 2014, according to documents obtained by Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through open records requests.

But Tom Weyandt, the city of Atlanta’s senior transportation policy advisor, said the project is still on target to be completed on time.

“All of the dates that we have discussed have been internally proposed deadlines,” Weyandt said. “We are required by terms of the grant to have a system open and operating by September 2017. We are therefore well ahead of any federal expectations for completion of this project.”

Meanwhile, MARTA is pushing back against principal contractor URS Corp’s request for millions of additional dollars — a requested add-on of $7.2 million, according to the latest available documents to design and build the streetcar line.

In a September monitoring report sent to the FTA, the consulting firm said a “lack of trust and clear definition of the roles and responsibilities among the project team members” is hindering decision-making. Similar language was repeated in October, November and December.

But in a joint interview at City Hall on Tuesday, key streetcar leaders said the reports mischaracterize the situation with inaccurate descriptions of tension among the key players. The project is stronger that it has ever been, said Duriya Farooqui, Atlanta’s chief operating officer.

“We have a complex and unique partnership to manage a project that is going to be groundbreaking for the city,” Farooqui said.

The three main partners don’t always agree, but robust conversations about their roles have “led to good decisions being made,” she said.

Farooqui and others pointed out that they are plowing new ground: The federal grant program for the streetcar is new, and winning the money required organizations such as the city, MARTA and the downtown improvement district to work together and combine their funds in a way they never have before.

The project is designed to connect Philips Arena, the Georgia Dome, the CNN Center, the Georgia Aquarium, the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, the Sweet Auburn Historic District, Georgia State University, Grady Memorial Hospital and other landmarks.

Plans call for the 2.7-mile loop to have 12 passenger stops and four modern streetcars running at 15-minute intervals every day. Planners hope that 2,600 passengers will board each day.

While the independent consultant acknowledged that MARTA and the city have the technical wherewithal to pull off the project, the monthly reports also recommended that planners nail down a number of key personnel and financial details.

After the departure of two key project managers last year, several positions remained unfilled, for example.

Months ago, the sponsors agreed to conduct a “partnering session” to address what Delon Hampton and Associates called a lack of trust, but the workshop has not yet happened.

Meanwhile, the maximum price to be charged by URS Corp. to design and build the streetcar line has been a key point of debate. Last summer, the firm submitted a $59.1 million estimate, which would be $12.5 million more than the figure quoted when it won the design-build contract in March 2012. The sponsors did not accept that estimate and asked for a revised figure, according to the reports.

URS later trimmed the request for extra money down to $7.2 million, according to a December report. MARTA said it is in negotiations with the company.

Delon Hampton and Associates said it has alerted the sponsors that “additional funding may be required to provide additional contingencies to cover extra costs through the completion of the project.”

Delays are causing the streetcar sponsors to incur extra charges, including $750,000 to store the streetcars until the track is laid and ready. Richard Krisak, MARTA’s acting deputy general manager, said the agency teamed up with the city of Salt Lake to buy the streetcars sooner than it might have otherwise. The savings from the “piggy-backing” outweigh the added costs of storage, he said Tuesday.

”We purchased the best vehicle, for the best price, using the best contracting method we could select,” Krisak said.

In a statement Tuesday, FTA spokesman Dave Longo said the streetcar project will create construction jobs, affordable transportation options and new private investment in Atlanta.

“It’s not unusual for challenges to arise during the development and construction of major capital infrastructure projects,” Longo said. “However, the Federal Transit Administration is working closely with all the partners involved to move this project forward successfully.”

Late Friday, Delon Hampton and Associates issued a final version of the December report noting that some progress had been made.

“Lately, improvement in the teamwork and project implementation process has been evident in the project sponsors management of the project, especially in their support of the project director’s decisions and recommendations,” the company wrote.

A.J. Robinson, president of the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District, said it was not unusual for big, complex construction projects to encounter obstacles. At any given time, the streetcar project requires working with 15 to 18 different utilities to relocate a tangle of power, water and sewage lines, he said.

Giving the utilities more time to get out of the way will eventually allow for smoother track-laying, Robinson said. “There’s no gun to our head” forcing the project to be finished on a certain date, he said.

“We’re on the cusp of finishing all this and laying track,” Robinson said. “It’s a great project. It’s great for the city. It’s great for economic development. It’s about the future of our city. It’s a new, innovative way of moving people.”

But, he added, “It’s not an easy project.”

Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this report.

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