The Cobb Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday to deny approving the added expense that would have brought the county’s bill to Dutch engineering firm Arcadis to just over $1.7 million.
The initial $1.4 million payment approved in February is to prepare a transportation plan updated by the county every five years to be eligible for state and federal grants. Lee told the MDJ earlier in the week he decided about two months ago the report should include what transportation improvements the community wants to see and how the county could fund those projects.
And that’s what the almost $400,000 would have paid for, specifically technical analysis, public education, communications and community engagement that county staff considers “essential to the success of the project,” according to a memo given to the commissioners.
Lee said the $368,000 added cost would be less than 1 percent of what the county will spend over the next five years on transportation.
“Everyone will tell you that investment is minor and small and a good investment,” he said.
But the majority of his colleagues disagreed.
Commissioners Bob Ott, JoAnn Birrell and Lisa Cupid voted against spending the additional cash.
“I just could not justify the direction that was going to take us in,” Ott said.
Ott said he thought the community engagement and analysis that would have been paid for with the requested $368,000 was included in the amount originally approved.
“My understanding was that the $1.4 million had that included. … They told us now that that’s not the case.”
Birrell, too, said she could not reconcile the cost that would have come from the 2011 special purpose local option sales tax fund.
Cupid did not return a message left by the MDJ on Tuesday.
The plan Arcadis is already working on will include a $1.1 billion bus route extending from Kennesaw State University to Midtown, Atlanta, among other plans commissioned by the board. Lee has said he wants to see the project come to fruition but won’t pursue it if the majority of residents don’t agree.
Arcadis consultant James Hudgins was a proud campaign supporter of Lee, walking with him during last year’s Marietta Fourth of July Parade donning a “re-elect Lee” shirt.
After Tuesday’s vote, Lee was clearly rankled.
“I always thought we were a little more forward thinking,” Lee told his fellow commissioners.
He maintains the county’s transportation department has the largest need for planning, and the plan is important to make sure Cobb is making the “right investment tomorrow.”
Faye DiMassimo, director of the transportation department, also said there is a lot riding on the updated plan.
“Just from 2008 to now, many things have changed,” she said, referring to the last plan completed five years ago.
Among those changes are a struggling economy and the dual reversible toll lanes commissioned by Gov. Nathan Deal for Interstates 75 and 575 through Cobb and Cherokee counties.
The department learned from its mistakes following the transportation SPLOST rejected by voters in 2012, DiMassimo said, and has planned about two dozen “listening sessions” in the community.
It is “labor intensive” to staff those meetings, she said. DiMassimo said that she has already made plans to meet with a diverse group of civic organizations including Rich Pellegrino’s Cobb Immigrant Alliance, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Cobb Civic Coalition and the East Cobb Civic Association.
Lee and DiMassimo discussed the merits of the plan before the failed vote when Lee told DiMassimo, “Faye, we’ll go back to the old way of doing things.”
He described that “old way” as not making a substantial effort to involve the public in transportation decisions.
Commissioner Helen Goreham, who represents northwest Cobb, says the expansion of the contract was an attempt to get more people involved.
“I’m disappointed,” Goreham said. “I think this board has missed an opportunity to make a difference in the area of transportation for Cobb County.
“It’s a comment to me that says let’s continue doing business as we’ve always done business.”