Lee could find no support from fellow commissioners for putting his initial $100 million BRT line item in the “Tier 1” SPLOST list. So he has downsized the figure to $72.5 million and moved the BRT to the “Tier 2” list, which would be funded only if tax collections exceed the current $750 million estimate.
The chairman’s dream is a bus rapid transit line along the Cobb Parkway corridor from Acworth south to the Midtown MARTA station.
If he can get the local funding through the SPLOST, he would count on raising $300 million more in grants from other sources including federal funds to build the BRT — which would need still more millions each year in operating costs. Transit lines of whatever stripe need tax money to survive and do little if anything to relieve congestion. On top of that, there’s no groundswell of ridership support, and Cobb voters overwhelmingly rejected the similar “premium bus line” in the ill-fated T-SPLOST referendum two years ago.
What’s in store for Lee and the BRT was foretold at a SPLOST meeting hosted by Commissioner JoAnn Birrell. Leading the charge against the BRT was activist Ron Sifen, president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition. He said he had predicted Lee would indeed decide to include the transit proposal in the proposed new six-year SPLOST because the existing tax, expiring in December, is bringing in more money than projected.
Sifen made a new prediction: “This SPLOST is going to collect close to $100 million more than the $750 million that they’re claiming it’s going to raise.” That, he said, is why the BRT “magically appears for Tier 2.” Whether the new SPLOST — if it is approved by the voters — raises that much more than projected is open to debate. But it appears Sifen is on the right track concerning the probability of considerably higher collections.
This is true because the $750 million projection is based on existing conditions — not including the $672 million stadium for the Atlanta Braves and its adjoining $400 million mixed-used development scheduled for opening in 2017. The new SPLOST would receive taxes from Braves-related developments for more than three years. Explaining why he omitted the stadium and surrounding projects from his estimates, county finance director Jim Pehrson simply said, “We’re conservative with our estimates.” Indeed.
But what happens if the new SPLOST’s collections far exceed projections? Apparently, it would be up to the commissioners to decide how to divvy up the extra money. But they will have to decide on what the first and second priorities are before the SPLOST proposal can be submitted to the voters.
The proper course for the sitting commission is to: (1) remove the BRT proposal from any “tier” of the SPLOST and submit the question to the voters in a separate referendum if that’s the will of the commission, (2) have the projected SPLOST collections re-estimated with the Braves projects included, and (3) spell out what projects would be funded from any excess taxes collected.
It will end the gamesmanship and demonstrate the stewardship this commission owes to the citizens of Cobb County.