Now they have to figure out to sell it to voters.
The projects break down into $689 million for a yet-to-be-defined “enhanced premium transit service” from Acworth to the MARTA Arts Center Station in Midtown Atlanta; $292 million for roadway projects; and $3.2 million for improvements to McCollum Airport.
If voters in the 10-county Atlanta area approve the 10-year sales tax next July, the tax is projected to bring in more than $7 billion over its life. The 21-member Atlanta Regional Roundtable was charged with figuring out what projects to pay for with 85 percent of that amount, or $6.14 billion. The remaining 15 percent will decided at the county level.
That means that in addition to the $984 million, if voters agree to the tax, Cobb will also get a 15 percent pot of money, potentially worth $178 million. Cobb voters will know what that $178 million will be earmarked for before they vote on the tax in July.
“We’ll be working with the cities and with the Cobb Commissioners to come up with a project list for that 15 percent … hopefully for the first part of next year,” county chairman Tim Lee said.
After casting his vote on the roundtable’s final list Thursday morning, Lee said he was pleased.
“I think I did the right thing,” Lee said.
Following the unanimous vote to adopt the $6.14 billion project list, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson called it “a momentous occasion,” and compared it to when the Olympics came to Atlanta. Tad Leithead, chairman of both the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Cumberland Community Improvement District, said it was his proudest moment since the ARC secured $25 million for MARTA.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said it wouldn’t be easy to sell the tax to the public in such an economic slump.
“I think we’re going to be beggars in chief,” Reed said. “We’re going to go out and go talk to our folks at home and explain why we believe that this is a meaningful solution. And then we’re going to go to folks in the business community, and we’re going to raise somewhere between $6 million and $10 million, and we’re going to communicate with people directly about what’s at stake.”
Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews said it has been his pleasure to be part of a roundtable during “this historic time in metro Atlanta.”
“At the very beginning of the process almost a year ago, we talked about regionalism, and we talked about putting a list together that was going to benefit the entire 10-county metro region,” Mathews said. “And there where some people, perhaps even in this room right now, who didn’t think we could do it. Well, guess what? We proved them wrong.”
Mathews said that with any large tax or project, everyone always wants to make sure they get their fair share.
“There are a lot of counties here that made a lot of contributions to help the region, and I have to give a special thanks to those counties who really, really stuck it out and contributed to the region for the better of the entire region,” Mathews said.
Lee said the plan for the $689 million for “enhanced premium transit service” is to use $110 million for an upgraded Acworth-Midtown bus service, while the remaining $579 million would go toward whatever transit the county’s “Alternative Analysis” transit study due in February 2013 recommends.
Lee said that, despite criticisms from former county chairman Bill Byrne about pumping more funds into a bus route that is already operated by the Georgia Regional Transit Authority, consolidating services is the best option.
“We’re absorbing some GRTA bus routes because overall in delivering transportation options in the region, which includes folks from Cherokee and Paulding and Cobb in Atlanta, it is more effective and efficient overall for us to manage all buses in the region, and that’s what staff has recommended, and I agree,” Lee said.
Lee dismissed the argument that Cobb could end up losing its $689 million transit earmark if the roundtable decided to move it somewhere else. Lee said the law states that if it’s a specific project and there is funding attached to it, it has to be completed.
“The law also goes on to say that if a project for some reason becomes undeliverable, that funding goes back to the 15 percent pot and is distributed to the other counties and cities through the 15 percent formula. But there is a difference between moving it around and being an undeliverable,” he said. “For instance, if you get to Year 6, and a project becomes undeliverable for environmental issues that just prevents the project for going forward, then there’s a mechanism for what to do with that money.”
What is not in the legislation, Lee said, is for a group to decide it no longer wants to do a particular project and therefore shifts the money to another area.
Lee also disputed that voters would not know what they will be voting for regarding the $579 million earmarked for transit since the AA wouldn’t be finished until after the vote.
“Clearly it’s a project that helps relieve congestion in the Cobb area,” Lee said. “It’s a project that gives an alternative to commuters than just sitting in the car. It’s a project that, when fully delivered, will be able to help folks have a way to get from the northern part of Cobb County or even the Cumberland area to the Atlanta region which is where 25 percent of our community, our workers, go. The bus system allows us to be flexible to meet demands almost on a daily basis. Right now, it’s articulated so that we’re going to move forward with a bus system. If the AA comes out and suggests that we should look at alternatives such as light rail then that’s something we will look at, but if light rail does not work, if for some reason we lack the funding or some other component, the bus will continue for reasons I just articulated. I wouldn’t have voted for it if I thought it was a pig in a poke.”
Three of the 21-roundtable members were absent from Thursday’s vote. They were Holly Springs Mayor Tim Downing of Cherokee County; Douglasville Mayor Mickey Thompson of Douglas County; and Fayetteville Mayor Ken Steele of Fayette County.
Lobbyist Michael Paris of east Cobb, who hasn’t missed a roundtable meeting, said he plans to be involved in the education effort of the tax through the Metro Atlanta Voters Education Network.
“I’m proud of Tim and Mark for thinking of us as a region,” Paris said. “They’ve represented Cobb well, and they’ve represented the region well. I was born and bred and lived in Cobb County my entire life. Sixty years. And this is the biggest example of us pulling together as a region that I have ever seen, and it is the most important thing for my kids and your kids and our grandchildren in the future that we pull together as a region. It’s not about Cobb. It’s not about DeKalb. It’s not about the City of Atlanta. It’s about the region as a whole, and that’s what’s important, and that’s why we should be proud of what’s happened here today.”