The answer appears to be the latter, based on his continuing insistence it should include heavy funding for a Bus Rapid Transit system the public overwhelmingly seems to oppose.
Lee wants to include $100 million for the BRT in the 1 percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, which is expected to bring in around $750 million over its six-year life.
“I really believe in the project,” Lee said.
The BRT (which would have an actual price tag of about $492 million, not including operating costs) would feature buses traveling in dedicated lanes up and down the U.S. 41 corridor from Acworth to the Midtown MARTA station. Lee hopes to get buy-in for BRT from the other commissioners and the mayors of Cobb’s six cities at a meeting Friday.
But Lee seems to have the shortest memory in Cobb. His passion for BRT apparently has caused him to forget Cobb voters overwhelmingly rejected (by a 69-31 percent margin) the TSPLOST referendum two summers ago that included what, for all intents and purposes was a BRT line.
You’ll recall the Lee-backed TSPLOST originally would have steered around $865 million in Cobb tax dollars toward construction of a light-rail line from Cumberland Mall to Midtown Atlanta. It proved so immediately unpopular Lee shifted gears, reconfiguring the proposal so it instead would have spent $689 million for a “premium bus service” up the 41 corridor (apparently not to be confused with the Cobb Transit bus line already there). But it didn’t matter. The TSPLOST was DOA.
Now Lee is pulling out all the stops to jumpstart BRT. And thanks to a story in Wednesday’s MDJ, we know the pie-in-the-sky transit line is now in its fourth iteration. What once was a light rail line, and then a “premium bus service,” and then “BRT,” now is listed in the master project list for the proposed SPLOST as “high capacity multi-modal transit along Cobb Parkway.”
A rose by any other name is still a rose — and a BRT system by any other name is still a BRT system. Not only that: No matter what Lee chooses to call it, if he includes funding for a BRT in the upcoming November SPLOST referendum, local voters will see it as nothing but the TSPLOST warmed over — TSPLOST 2.0, you might say — and reject it.
WHY is Lee so eager to tempt fate by including the BRT in the SPLOST renewal vote? Has he forgotten the current county road SPLOST was approved in 2011 by a razor-thin 79-vote margin out of 43,000 votes cast? Has he also forgotten the victory margin of the prior road SPLOST referendum in 2005 was an equally narrow 117-vote margin out of 40,000 votes cast?
Also recall SPLOST supporters promised in the run-up to the 2011 votes if the public passed the measure there would be no need to raise property taxes for the foreseeable future? And remember also just days after its passage, Lee announced a $31 million budget hole for fiscal 2011, and ultimately persuaded his board to hike the property tax rate by 15.7 percent. The tax rate still is not back where it was, yet Lee now wants county residents to tax themselves further to push a BRT line.
He and the commission would do better to downsize the proposed SPLOST to five years from six and to cut it to the bare bones. A narrow majority of local voters probably can be persuaded to support a SPLOST tax that focuses on “needs,” since needs are justifiable and will have to be paid for one way or the other anyway. But they are not likely to vote for a SPLOST list full of “wants.”
In short, Lee needs to be thinking “meat cleaver,” not “sexy.”
THERE ALSO are those who think Lee has an as-yet unstated reason for wanting the BRT on the fall ballot. That is, the fall general election ballot will have higher turnout than a stand-alone referendum. And while small turnouts are easy to manipulate, it’s possible Lee is hoping to use the large turnout to his advantage. That is, he could be hoping a large turnout with a sizeable Democratic component might be more amenable to voting for mass transit.
That might work — and it might not. And it amounts to a huge gamble that risks the future of the county’s road program and his own political future on BRT. If he’s truly committed to passing the SPLOST, he’ll sideline the buses, downsize the program’s scale and focus on lining up support for it.
There conceivably will come a time when there is sufficient density in the Cobb Parkway corridor to support a BRT-type line, or even a rail line of some sort. But we’re not there yet. Not even close.
If Lee is absolutely determined to hear from voters about the BRT, he should push a stand-alone bond referendum on the BRT with it as the only item on the ballot. Interest rates are at historic lows and the county has a cream-of-the-crop AAA bond rating, so who knows? But at least that way, if the BRT dies, it would not drag down the rest of the county’s SPLOST program along with it.
TIM LEE needs to listen the voters on the BRT, rather than telling the voters to listen to him. And the other commissioners and the mayors at Friday’s meeting need to tell him loud and clear not to mix SPLOST with BRT.
Moreover, if Lee is smart, he will give voters lots of reasons to vote for the SPLOST — rather than a ready-made reason to vote against it.