That’s not by definition a “bait-and-switch,” but that’s how many Cobb residents now see the pending TSPLOST program, which was originally touted as a way of addressing metro-wide traffic congestion but has morphed into a ruinously expensive plan to set up a Cobb “premium bus service” — whatever that is — to Atlanta rather than focus on widening roads and improving interchanges and intersections. And they’re getting strong hints from “Santa” that instead of the bus service, what they’re really going to see their tax dollars spent on is a rail transit line from the southern tip of Cobb southward to the Midtown MARTA station. They suspect their TSPLOST Christmas present is a thinly disguised plan to “backdoor” MARTA rail to Cobb.
That was the backdrop Monday as Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee met with Cobb legislators. And to the surprise of no one (except Lee, perhaps), the chairman was raked over the coals for his role in the preparation of the controversial TSPLOST project list. There are $984 million worth of projects for Cobb on the list, but the majority — $695 million — would go to create that so-called “premium” Acworth-to-Cumberland-to-Midtown bus line that mysteriously debuted on the list after Lee was inundated with flack from the public about the rail proposal. That “premium” bus service is a line that more or less duplicates what Cobb Community Transit already offers; is a line that nobody remembers anybody clamoring for; is a line that would do very little to alleviate traffic congestion even if it’s built, and which would not even make it to Cobb for at least a decade since it would be built northward from Midtown; and is a line that’s widely seen as a “cipher” or placeholder for TSPLOST dollars until federal or other funding comes along with which to build the rail line.
Cobb is used to strong leaders who represent the county in an assertive and effective manner. That’s what they were hoping to see more of when Lee and Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews were appointed to the metro-wide 21-person TSPLOST committee. But that’s not what they delivered. They seemed to see their job as representing what the Atlanta “powers that be” want to Cobb residents, rather than representing what Cobb residents want to Atlanta leaders.
Lee has been asked repeatedly by the Journal in the past year what his top transportation priorities for the county were — and repeatedly declined to say. His reticence, in hindsight, helped fuel the widespread assumption that he has “sold out” to the Cobb Chamber of Commerce, Cumberland Improvement District and Atlanta business interests. When asked he typically begged off, saying he was “listening” to the public before making up his mind. But even after multiple loud public hearings at which the TSPLOST rail proposal was repeatedly picked apart, Lee seemed to be listening not to the critics, but to his “bosses” at the Chamber, CID, etc.
The Chamber, meanwhile, didn’t even make a pretense of being open-minded on TSPLOST, choosing instead to endorse it almost simultaneously with the unveiling of the project list by the committee — and without polling its membership.
What many see as Cobb’s most glaring traffic issue — the overburdened Windy Hill/I-75/Cobb Parkway corridor and interchanges — is barely addressed in the final TSPLOST list. And though TSPLOST purportedly is aimed at offering “regional” solutions, the final list includes a number of items that barely fit that definition at all, such as $3.2 million for a new traffic control tower at McCollum Airfield.
State Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), who has been one of the loudest critics of Lee and the list, and echoed by Reps. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna) and Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs), was on target again at Monday’s meeting. He noted the list’s focus was radically transformed between March and October.
“The priorities of some local officials went from relieving traffic congestion ... to something very different,” he said, adding that 70 percent of Cobb’s TSPLOST funds would go to the fancy bus system.
“And that’s not what Cobb County wants,” he declared. “Not only does it not solve our traffic problems, I believe, frankly, it kills any prospect of passing meaningful traffic relief. ... We have a $6 billion bait-and-switch. It was sold as traffic relief. It’s being delivered as economic development and transit transformation for Atlanta.”
And it is “transit transformation” that most of those in Cobb who would be paying for it adamantly do not want.
Atlanta interests are getting what they want from the TSPLOST. And Cobb Chamber insiders and the Cumberland CID are likely to get their ultimate prize from TSPLOST as well — a rail transit line and, failing that, a gaudy bus system.
And Cobb taxpayers? They’re footing the bill.