Overall, the lawmakers from both parties agreed that if the TIA list were put to voters today, the 10-year, one-percent sales tax question would fail. The referendum is scheduled for July 31, and it’s possible, if not probable, the referendum will be moved to the Nov. 6 general election, they said.
The Republicans also hope the project list for the 10-county area and specifically Cobb will change, because they don’t believe a rail line or bus rapid transit route will do anything to relieve traffic congestion. The Democrats, though, believe such mass-transit ideas are a good start.
Constitutional challenges to the Transportation Investment Act are also likely, several said.
The six lawmakers who visited the Journal in groups were Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers, a Woodstock Republican, and fellow state Sen. Doug Stoner, a Smyrna Democrat; and state Representatives Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican who leads the Cobb delegation, Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs); Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna) and David Wilkerson (D-Austell).
Cobb has 19 lawmakers at the Gold Dome.
The TIA is estimated to bring in $6 billion across the metro Atlanta area throughout the decade of collections.
Sen. Rogers said he wants to see the project list change, perhaps putting the toll-lane project for Interstates 75 and 575 that the state recently dropped as a public-private deal into the project list in place of the $689 million “enhanced premium transit service” that is now on the list. He called the current project list “a bad deal for Cobb County.”
“The needs of our county today are more capacity to move vehicles, and that is not going to change,” Rogers said. “Anybody that travels in north Cobb County or going into southern Cherokee County knows it is a traffic nightmare. A train is not going to solve that.”
Rep. Setzler again called the list a “bait and switch.”
“I’m hopeful that the TIA list can be reengineered to deliver traffic relief,” Setzler said. “If we can’t solve our transportation concerns for families and for single-occupancy motorists, we haven’t addressed our real transportation needs. The TIA, although sold on traffic relief, has been re-engineered to deliver something dramatically different, and it’s not something residents in Cobb County want.”
Rep. Ehrhart, a Republican like Rogers and Setzler, said there could be attempts to revise the TIA to allow counties to opt-out. Currently, an overall majority of voters in the 10-county region is needed to pass the tax.
“There is a significant amount of angst among many representatives in several counties – Cobb, Henry, Cherokee, others — with the way the list was developed, with constituencies having some serious issues on whether they can opt in or opt out, what the actual result was,” Ehrhart said. “I think the push will take one of two forms. It will either be allowing an opt out which may or may not be constitutional. The bill itself is probably unconstitutional on its face. One way or the other you’ll see it challenged in the courts. Our own legislative counsel seemed to think that there may be some constitutional issues with it.
Or, “rather than getting an opt out, which may not be politically feasible, because one area may not be treated differently than the rest of the state, maybe putting off, if nothing else, just the ARC region until we can change the process.”
But Democratic Sen. Stoner said changing the contentious project list will be hard to come by in the Senate.
“As I see it, you would have a hard time getting a consensus in the Senate to actually make changes,” Stoner said.
He and the others said they doubted voters would approve the referendum if it were held today, though his belief is not based on the project list.
“I don’t think people even know it (the TIA) exists,” Stoner said.
Rep. Evans is in her first term in the legislature and like all General Assembly members, will be up for reelection this year.
“I agree it probably wouldn’t pass in Cobb County right now, but I think it probably would pass in our region, and that goes back to the Constitutionality issue that we were talking about earlier, the equal protection for counties who say no but the region who says yes,” Evans said. “Is that fair for Cobb County citizens? I’m sure a court will tell us.”
As for moving the date of the referendum, Setzler indicated it’s a possibility.
“There’s too many variables in play to speak to that,” Setzler said. “It was put in July for a reason. I think it needs to stay there. If some things were changed, as you start to move one or two or three variables in this process, then I think all that’s open for discussion.”
Rogers and Ehrhart both said they favor moving tax referendums to November general elections.
Stoner said he favored doing so while in session last year.
“In the Senate there was a bipartisan consensus to move it, but for some reason the leadership decided not to take advantage of (that),” he said.
Cobb’s biggest-ticket item on the TIA list is $689 million for “enhanced premium transit service.” Other Cobb projects include $16 million for building left-turn lanes on River View Road, near the Chattahoochee River and Charlie Brown Airport; $14 million for a Windy Hill/Terrell Mill Connector adjacent to I-75; and $3 million for a new tower and runway lights at McCollum Airport.
Not surprisingly, support for mass transit falls along party lines, with Democrats favoring it and Republicans criticizing the cost.
“We’re done building roads in Cobb, folks,” said Stoner, a Democrat whose district includes the Cumberland Galleria area. “We’re not building any more four-lane highways. It’s not going to happen. There’s nowhere to put them. And you’re not going to be building any more single-occupancy vehicle lanes on I-75 because it doesn’t make economic sense to acquire the right of way. … So what’s your alternative? At this point, we’ve got to look at some other mode of mass transit, be it BRT (bus rapid transit) to begin with, which could turn into light rail at a later date or a combination where you have light rail coming to the Cumberland Galleria area with BRT feeding into that down the 41 corridor and eventually extending that northward. In my opinion, it’s a step in the right direction.”
“We’re going to have to come up with these larger transportation alternatives transit projects, and those unfortunately take a lot of time and they take a lot of money. You’ve got to start somewhere, and this is a mechanism to get that going,” she said. “It also is great for folks in my part of the district and that may have something to do with why I like it. I represent the Cumberland area.”
Rep. Wilkerson, another South Cobb Democrat, said his constituents also want “some mass-transit alternative.”
“We can’t keep building roads to get out of the situation. Whether this is what they would have desired, I doubt it, but it is a step in the right direction,” Wilkerson said.
Their Republican colleagues dispute that.
Said Rogers: “The business community came to us and said ‘The traffic problem in metro Atlanta is becoming a serious economic problem for us. The traffic is killing us.’ We put forward an alternative for how we can solve the traffic problem, and instead some took that opportunity and went a different direction with it.
“We need to get back to what we started with. This vote needs to be about traffic congestion relief. And if it’s not, then we’ve done a disservice. … Most of the people I talk to in Cherokee say ‘I like the list that Cherokee came up with to put in this plan, but if the traffic problem in Cobb County is not solved then it doesn’t do me a whole lot of good,’” he said.
Setzler said the Atlanta Regional Commission had taken over the project list to institute that body’s 50-year vision plan known as ‘Concept Plan 3.’
“Even though the TIA was passed as a traffic measure, the ARC saw this as an opportunity to very quietly repurpose the TIA to being a funding mechanism for their Concept Plan 3. The projects that you’re seeing in TIA are highly aligned with that Concept Plan 3,” Setzler said. “If you look at the functioning of the metro roundtable, the ARC provided their staff to help support that, provided facilities to support that. The ARC certainly can pursue its interests as its board members see fit, but the plan you see in the TIA investment list is heavily influenced by the concept plan of the ARC.
“A 10-mile rail line from downtown Atlanta that crosses the river a couple miles and serves a portion of the county … just cannot deliver, dollar for dollar, the kind of traffic relief and quality of life that we’re held accountable to provide,” Setzler said. “We can’t afford to misapply a billion dollars of infrastructure spending towards something that’s not going to solve traffic relief.”
The always outspoken Ehrhart challenged his colleagues to “find me a public transit system that’s come in on time and under budget somewhere in this country, and I’ll be the first one to stand up and cheer.”
“Let’s look at something that’s not subsidized by everybody that doesn’t ride it,” he said, while advocating for a magnetic-levitation transit system, such as that produced by American Maglev Technology, a Powder Springs-based company.
“It’s built for 1/100th of the cost. It’s built in three years. And it moves more people, and people actually pay for it at the fare box — a fascinating concept,” Ehrhart said.
Setzler also responded to critics who have said the legislature punted the project list to local officials to avoid the hard work them-selves.
“That’s a sad accusation,” Setzler said. “The legislature was willing to take that on, and the two large local government associations, the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, asked that the local governments be able to have their representatives develop the list kind of as a bottom-up local list. So there was really a request that that be the process.”