Setzler, chairman of the Cobb Legislative Delegation, shared his comments during a town hall meeting at Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in east Cobb hosted by Commissioner Bob Ott on Monday evening.
More than 300 people turned out to listen as TSPLOST proponents and opponents answered questions from the audience for about an hour and a half.
“I can tell you I had a very prominent leader in this region, he’s a friend of mine — I completely disagree with him on this issue — he said, ‘Ed, all I want to do is I want to get a transit (line) outside of Fulton and DeKalb county. I don’t care how big it is or what it looks like, then we’ve got the regional governance, then all the counties — Cobb, Cherokee — are all brought in, are all funding the same system,’” Setzler shared, adding, “Friends, that is not a win-win for us.”
One of the topics of the evening was the largest expenditure on Cobb’s TSPLOST project list: $689 million earmarked for “enhanced premium transit service” from Acworth to the MARTA Arts Center Station in Midtown, which county chairman Tim Lee said will be used for bus rapid transit and may be upgraded to light rail with federal funding.
Representing the pro-TSPLOST side with WSB Radio’s Capt. Herb Emory, Marietta attorney Chuck Clay feigned ignorance of such a rail line.
“Last time I checked the existing project list, there’s no rail in it,” Clay said. “There’s $700 million for bus rapid transit and express routes from Acworth to Midtown. … I don’t see any rail.”
Setzler and transportation activist Ron Sifen of Vinings explained how rail factors in.
“There is rail transit in the TSPLOST and this project — Project 035 — has explicit language that allows this project to morph into light rail just simply based on the recommendation of the (county’s) Alternatives Analysis study that is under way right now, and that study is almost certainly going to recommend light rail, and light rail, like I said, will cost at least $3 billion, $2.3 billion of which is not funded in the TSPLOST, and the only place to get it is to come back to you for even more tax increases,” Sifen told the crowd.
Even if the county’s transportation study says to stay with bus rapid transit, Setzler argued, that is $689 million for a bus route.
“We have buses that run from Acworth to downtown today,” Setzler said. “Why would we need to spend $700 million on buses to provide the same service we provide today? … So if it’s about buses and the Alternatives Analysis recommends buses, it is a $700 million breathtaking waste, by my reasoning.”
But if the AA recommends light rail, just take a look at MARTA, Setzler said.
“MARTA is hemorrhaging dollars,” Setzler said. “MARTA is begging for the broader metro area to help them fund their operations. If MARTA can’t fund themselves with rail, why would we want to build rail for ourselves thinking that the reality is going to be any different? Friends, Cobb County makes smart decisions. We as a metro region need to make smart decisions. But in doing that we can’t work around places where we know it’s not going to work and where it’s going to serve 2 percent of the population of a county of 700,000 people.”
Better to vote down the list on July 31 and come back in two years’ time with a better list, Setzler and Sifen argued.
Yet Emory said voting down the referendum would just delay any traffic relief.
“You’re going to have to go through all this again,” Emory said. “You’re going to have all these meetings again. You’re going to have all these lists circulating again. We’re going to go through all these elections again. It’s just going to be two years later down the road, and you’re going to sit in traffic for two more years while you wait.”
Clay said it wouldn’t be so easy as revisiting the list in two years.
“If you’re against it, vote it down, but don’t do it under the pretense that we’re all going to run back down in a great ‘Kumbaya’ and have 50-plus-one join together,” Clay said. “Go ask Gov. Deal how active he’ll be on that one.”
Setzler also pointed to the massive advertising campaign under way to sway voters to approve the tax.
“The reason we’re seeing $8 million of spending trying to convince you this is a good list is imagine this, there’s $8 million being spent on advertising, $8 billion on projects. That’s a 1,000 to 1 return on the advertising dollar. Think for a moment. Imagine your granddaughter has a lemonade stand, she spends $5 on advertising for the lemonade stand. And imagine in a Saturday afternoon she makes $5,000. That is the payoff for the interests putting money behind trying to convince us this will solve our problems. They have every right to do that. But we as citizens need to be wise enough to understand why there is so much money behind supporting this even though the project list stinks. It won’t solve our problems. I’m not going to name names. I won’t do that. But I want you to think this through. The reason you’re seeing these dollars being spent is there is a breathtaking amount of money on the backside of this.”
Emory responded to this argument by saying he was not making any money for attending the forum on Monday.
“WSB is not paying me,” Emory said. “I came here on my own. So it’s got nothing to do with 5-to-1 return with me. Fact is it would be better if you vote it down because then I’ve got more job security, I’ll tell you that right now.”
The Cumberland to Midtown rail line was not the only project that raised eyebrows.
“As cool as I think the Beltline project would be, as cool as I think a trolley is, it’s not about traffic relief. That doesn’t take one car off the road. It doesn’t solve traffic relief,” Setzler said about the projects on Atlanta’s list.
Setzler also said there is a $600 million line item in the project list that would allow for bankrolling of MARTA salaries and operations.
In response, Clay emphasized that the TSPLOST is a regional effort.
“We can have paralysis by analysis,” Clay said. “We can wait for that great divining tablets to come down from the sky saying, ‘this is traffic relief, this isn’t,’ but I’m going to tell you something. There’s some folks in Atlanta — and I personally think what they do with their share of the dollars is up to Atlanta — but I suspect there’s some pretty smart profound people in Atlanta that also can tell you we think the Beltline is very much having to do with our overall traffic plan. Look people, we’ve got a local Cobb SPLOST. We’ve had them for years. And what it really sounds like from a number of folks is you just want another Cobb SPLOST. And I get it. And if that’s all you want then this regional approach, the next regional approach, and the tenth regional approach is never going to satisfy anybody’s idea of perfection in this room. Count on it.”
Following the town hall, Ott said he thought the evening went well.
“We did a head count and we had about 300 to 320 people, which is a phenomenal turnout I think if you consider it’s still summer vacation,” Ott said. “I think everyone was well behaved. They were polite regardless of the side they were on. The main purpose was to get people educated and get them to understand that there’s an important vote on July 31.”