The proposal recommends a $1.1 billion bus system stretching 29 miles from KSU to the MARTA Arts Center Station in Midtown. There are also routes that come off that main line that serve Acworth, Kennesaw, Marietta, Smyrna and the Cumberland Community Improvement District, said Faye DiMassimo, director of the Cobb Department of Transportation, who along with Jim Croy, whose firm conducted the study, made their presentation to the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.
The proposal would use two kinds of bus systems: express bus service, which are the buses the county currently uses for its CCT system; and bus rapid transit, which are buses that have the ability to carrying more passengers.
“The express bus, which would be your commuter where you’re trying to make as few stops as possible, gives a very efficient travel time going from Point A to Point B, that primarily is in the I-75 corridor using what will be the new managed lanes when they come online or the existing HOV system that’s inside 285,” DiMassimo said. “And then the arterial bus rapid transit route still goes from Kennesaw, comes down 41, makes more stops, and it serves more of the students, seniors, local trips, as well as commuter trips.”
It remains unclear how the county intends to fund this project.
“I don’t know where the money is going to come from,” Ott said after the meeting. “There is no financing for it.”
In her handout on the project, DiMassimo lists the following funding options, noting that the county could apply to the federal government to pay for half of the project, in addition to a “menu of revenue opportunities from partners (e.g. educational institutions, parking fees, benefit assessment district contributions, public/private partnerships). Cost sharing with the City of Atlanta is being explored.”
Cobb Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Lee said there is always the option of a local SPLOST.
“Our one cent generates about — what? — $120 million a year, so a 10-year program, philosophically we could,” Lee said.
But Lee said he wouldn’t want to solely rely on a SPLOST to fund the program.
“Yes, this is a Cobb-led project, but it benefits a wider area, so I would initially look to help from all the other jurisdictions within Cobb and outside of Cobb and the CIDs to be partners in this project whatever happens moving forward,” Lee said.
Yet Ott is skeptical.
“It’s wishful thinking because our congressmen, Tom Price and Phil Gingrey, have said there is no money available, the voters have said ‘no,’ so we’re going to put this on the shelf, it’s going to sit on the shelf, and I don’t think it will ever happen,” he said.
Last year, Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews, who sat on the executive committee of the TSPLOST’s Atlanta Regional Roundtable, voted to approve a project list for Cobb County that would have allocated an $856.5 million line item for a Cumberland-Midtown light rail line. But after receiving public backlash from residents who asked how a rail line that was mostly in Fulton County would help the majority of Cobb County, Mathews and Lee scaled back that earmark to $689 million to be used for “enhanced premium transit service” from Acworth to Midtown which Lee said would be spent on bus rapid transit.
Even so, voters rejected the TSPLOST on July 31.
But while that funding is no longer available, DiMassimo said there is potential to fund the new $1.1 billion KSU-Midtown bus program with federal funds that would pay for half of the cost.
Yet before the county can apply for those federal funds it needs to complete a $3 million environmental study of the project being conducted by Kimley — Horn & Associates, which should be complete in 18 to 24 months, she said.
DiMassimo said the bus option was chosen because it was the most cost effective.
“It’s the one that gives you the best ridership for the most effective amount of resources, most effective amount of cost,” she said.
Light rail wasn’t selected because while the current proposal is $1.1 billion, a light rail line from Kennesaw to Midtown would have been closer to $4 billion, she said.
“It was a lot more and when you looked at what that ‘lot more’ got you in terms of ridership it just wasn’t the most cost effective way to go,” she said.
DiMassimo said the cost of the buses that would be used in the program only amount to six percent of the total $1.1 billion. Most of the cost comes from the infrastructure involved in building bus stations, a maintenance yard and parking, she said.
The proposal calls for “grade separations” at 12 intersections along Cobb Parkway, which county spokesman Robert Quigley described as installing a bridge or tunnel at an intersection to allow the bus to pass though traffic uninterrupted.
Some of the stations will simply be platforms. Others, like the one in the Cumberland CID, will likely be larger, DiMassimo said.
But Ott said he sees some problems that go beyond how to fund the project.
“The question that begs to be asked is, is this for economic development or is it for traffic congestion relief?” Ott said. “You know, if it’s for congestion relief I don’t see how it competes with the car on 75 or 575 because there’s so many stops that it showed on the plan we saw today. If it’s for economic development it’s an awful big price tag and with no guarantees that it’s actually going to provide additional growth.”
Ott said he has long expressed opposition to both the $1.8 million AA study and the $3 million environmental study.
“It’s a pretty expensive enterprise,” Ott said. “What the folks in favor of it say is that it’s good to plan and think ahead. Yeah it’s good to plan, but you need to be planning something that has a high probability of being able to proceed or succeed and I just don’t see this as having a high probability because of its price tag.”
Lee insists there is a difference between what this AA study seeks to accomplish and what the TSPLOST was about.
“First of all, the (TSPLOST) was introduced by the state,” Lee said. “I was asked to be part of that through legislation. It differs in a lot of ways. We developed a list that was regional in nature that addressed nothing but regional issues was the scope, and it had to come from existing projects that were in the queue.”
Some voted against the TSPLOST because they didn’t like the project list, or thought it had too much or not enough transit, or didn’t want a tax increase, or didn’t trust their government or didn’t believe there was a structure in place to carry out the project list, he said.
“So there was a lot of reasons given for people to vote against it and they voted against the specific projects, the specific list and the specific funding mechanism,” Lee said. “How that differs from what we’re doing is we’ve looked at what is our projected congestion issues and ridership needs for commuters in the next 10 to 15 years. We’ve looked at that holistically and singularly in this particular project and then vetted out very carefully what the best technology and the best route would make sense to deliver the most amount of people for the least cost and then how did that fare against other, if you would, stakeholder-type interests of economic development, air quality, and the other components looked at, redevelopment and things of that nature.”
The TSPLOST was driven by the state and put together for the region to identify regional issues overall from transportation to trails, Lee said.
“Ours (the AA study) was set up to specifically address the current problems that exist in the Northwest Corridor as it relates to congestion, to address the current demand for alternatives to the automobile and is why the CCT commuter bus system in Cobb County is so successful, and to try to look into the future what would be the best and most effective way to meet the congestion and the demand of the future through Cobb County as we mentioned earlier with the understanding that Cherokee commuters, Polk County commuters, Bartow County commuters come through Cobb to get to Atlanta, and conversely Atlanta commuters come into Cobb for our workforce.”