Only about 50 people turned out for the Democrat-hosted town hall in Smyrna on Thursday, about half the number that attended previous, Republican-led meetings, possibly because of a 5:30 p.m. start time. Fewer than 10 attendees spoke at the meeting, and only one professed strong support for the TSPLOST, while most either came out strongly against it or questioned its ability to ease traffic congestion in Cobb.
Stoner hosted the meeting along with state Rep. David Wilkerson (D-Austell), state Rep. Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna), Cobb Chairman Tim Lee, Commissioner Bob Ott, Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews, Cobb Department of Transportation Director Faye DiMassimo, and Cobb DOT Deputy Director Dan McDuff.
One of the chief criticisms of the proposed light-rail line from Cumberland Mall to MARTA’s Art Center station in midtown Atlanta has been a concern that criminals will use the transit system to come into Cobb, a concern echoed by Lance Lamberton, president of the Cobb County Taxpayers Association.
“In Portland, Ore., not too many years ago, they installed a light-rail system,” Lamberton said. “There was a major-league increase in crime in the areas right along where the light rail was established. And they had to beef up security. They had to increase the amount of patrols. And of course it increased operating costs. A real concern I have, and I think many, many people in Cobb County have with this whole idea of light rail coming in here is this backdoor way of trying to get MARTA into Cobb and then bringing all the crime that currently lives in Fulton.”
Stoner, who hosted the meeting, said crime increases with a rise in population, not transit.
“I’ve heard that issue for years,” Stoner said. “I’m a native Cobb Countian: I’ve heard it used in not allowing MARTA into this county. Honestly, I’ve grown up listening to that rhetoric for a very long time … We’re now a county with almost 700,000 people. Usually, when we have more people we have more problems, a more complex society. So to say one thing is the reason for all of that I think is a very (simplified) explanation for everything.”
Wilkerson said criminals tend to use personal vehicles to evade police, not transit systems.
“I read the paper, I watch the news, and I have yet to see anybody rob anybody, shoot anybody, and jump on MARTA,” Wilkerson said. “If they do, you just go to the next station and wait for them. … I don’t typically hear law enforcement complaining about criminals jumping on public transportation.”
The Rev Coakley Pendergrass, associate minister at Turner Chapel A.M.E. Church in Marietta, said fears about crime are racially motivated and distract from the economic benefits of light rail.
“That issue is fear,” Pendergrass said. “I was a police officer, a transit police officer, in New York for 19 years. When I was in uniform, walking through the train, people respected me and felt comfortable. On that same train, in my civilian clothing, late at night, and you get this fear. All of a sudden, “He’s black, he’s going to hurt me.” You have to be careful what you say. I will tell you, quite a few of these town hall meetings, the two that the Republican Party had … the conversation is about fear. Not about the reality, not about being progressive, not about the fact that you want to bring business into Cobb County.”
Lamberton also questioned how a light-rail line in Cumberland would ease traffic congestion for the county.
“I’m trying to wrap my mind around this: We’ve got a line that’s going from the Arts Center to Cumberland Mall,” he said. “But if I live in East Cobb or I live in West Cobb — How is that going to serve me as a commuter? … I don’t see how this is helping me or anybody else as far as convenience, time savings, liability, efficiency or anything else.”
Stoner said the line would reduce the number of cars on the road.
“It may not help you immediately in the sense that you’re going to go catch the train and ride down there,” Stoner said. “But what it may do is remove a great deal of vehicles off that roadway that you use.”
Vinings resident Ron Sifen said that because the majority of the rail line would not be in Cobb County, traffic would not be reduced for local commuters.
“We talked about 20,000 boardings per day … then we talked about that being the hypothetical equivalent of getting 20,000 cars off the road,” Sifen said. “Just as an example, we’ve got a transit proposal that’s going to have one station in Cobb County, right on the county line, and we’re going to have six or seven stations in Fulton County. Of those 20,000 boardings, the overwhelming majority, possibly even 90 percent, of those people are going to live near the transit stations in Fulton County. … Probably close to 90 percent of the riders are going to be from Fulton County. Therefore, this is not going to result in getting 20,000 cars off the road in Cobb County.”
Stoner said he believed the county was underestimating the number of people in Cobb County who would ride the rail line.
When asked why voters should support a transit system that won’t be self-sufficient, Stoner said no transportation method pays for itself.
“Everything you do is transportation is subsidized by taxpayers one way or another,” Stoner said. “Even the toll road, 400, doesn’t pay for itself. There are a number of subsidies that go into maintaining that infrastructure. … We don’t charge a toll on 41. It’s 100 percent subsidy. So you’ve got to understand when you’re talking about transportation, no matter what mode of transportation that is, the taxpayers pay one way or the other.”
Stoner then suggested toll roads might become more prominent in the area.
“That’s something we’re going to be talking about in the future: Are we going to be putting toll roads around the region?”
Evans said concerns about immediate effects shouldn’t deter voters from passing the TSPLOST next year.
“Remember that this is Phase 1 of a project that will eventually spread out throughout the entire county,” she said. “No, we can’t do it in one year. No, we can’t do it in five years. And we might not be able to do it in 10 years. It might take a little bit longer than that. But … just because it might only help me today and David tomorrow — that cannot be a reason not to get started. Either we’re going to get started now to eventually bring progress to the region and to alleviate traffic for all of us, or we’re going to be looking at Charlotte in the rear-view mirror and thinking “man, we really missed the boat on that one.”
Wilkerson said the light rail line isn’t just about reducing congestion.
“It really is about economic development,” he said. “Whether it’s transit, whether it’s roads, whatever is going to bring jobs to the county. … We need to get people back to work. We need to get people to work efficiently and back home to see their families efficiently. And whatever that solution is, I think that’s what we need to be working toward.”
He also said that there is no connection between crime and public transportation.
“If you say something enough times, people will start to believe it and think it’s legitimate, whether or not it has any fact tied to it,” he said. “There are no studies that I’ve seen that link to public transit. There’s so many other factors that go into it. … Bringing public transit to a community is not going to increase crime, I don’t think. “
Sifen said after the meeting that the democrats’ arguments did not convince him the light rail would be effective.
“I’ve been to all the meetings, and so far I’m not satisfied with the answers that I’ve gotten,” he said. “This is an economic development project. They all basically admitted tonight that this is an economic development project. What Doug (Stoner) and I were just discussing is that we need a project that will alleviate traffic congestion. This project will do nothing to alleviate traffic congestion in Cobb County.”
Stoner said transit is an investment and criticized those who want a return on their tax dollars immediately.
“They are looking for instant gratification,” he said. “I invest my tax dollars for my children to get a public education. But if I take this attitude that it’ll take them 12 years to get a diploma, and another 4 years to get through college, you know that’s a lot of money that’s not going to help me now, so why should I pay that over the years. Obviously no parent thinks that way about their children. That’s the same thing here. We’re looking to the future, not just for us now, but for people who come behind us, including our own children.
“If we take this attitude that if we, the current people in this community, don’t get a benefit that we’re not willing to make investments in the future, then I’m just very disappointed, because that’s not called leadership. That’s not investing for your children’s legacy. Thank God folks in this county, folks like Ernest Barrett, were willing to go out and push that and make those investments. Is this project list the right list? That’s for the voters to decide. But to say we shouldn’t do anything because it doesn’t benefit me on my little street over here, that is to me I think almost a short-sighted vision of how things work in society.
“It’s kind of un-American. That God my parents and grandparents were willing to pay the motor fuel tax to build the interstate highways.”
Among those in the audience were lobbyists Michael Paris and Ron Fennel; Doug Shepard, Cobb Schools SPLOST administrator; state Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna); Smyrna Councilman Jimmy Smith; County Manager David Hankerson; Ziad Salameh, Smyrna city council candidate; and Slade Gulledge, Cobb Chamber government affairs manager.
Stoner’s district has been reshaped in the recent reapportionment map, putting the Democrat in a mostly Republican area and potentially costing him the next election.
Stoner voted against the TSPLOST in the Legislature last year, while Evans and Wilkerson were not yet elected.
— Staff Writer Jon Gilooly contributed to this report