The winner of the May 20 Republican primary faces Democrat Derrick Crump, an IT consultant, in the general election, although given the Republican stronghold in west Cobb, pundits predict a GOP victory.
This month, the Board of Commissioners is expected to learn the findings of a multi-million dollar study to determine the feasibility of using a bus rapid-transit system, also known as BRT.
The county recently announced a scaled-down version of the $1.1 billion transit plan that eliminates most of the grade separations for bridges and tunnels along Cobb Parkway, thereby lowering the cost to $494 million. If commissioners were to approve BRT and funding fell into place, the system could be operational by 2018, according to county transportation officials.
BRT was a hot-button issue at a debate Saturday at the Cobb Republican Party headquarters.
Byrne says ‘Not only no, but hell no’
As the first candidate to answer the question, former county Chairman Bill Byrne wasn’t shy about his thoughts on BRT.
“Not only no, but hell no,” Byrne said. “BRT does not work from an engineering perspective, let alone an economic development perspective.”
Byrne said there aren’t enough people who would use the bus system from where it’s proposed.
Byrne said the project was for economic development, not transportation relief. He also questioned where the money would come from.
“We spend a million dollars studying a proposal that didn’t work to begin with,” Byrne said. “What did we not learn from the 10 years experience in dealing with issues of this nature?”
County Chairman Tim Lee said in February a new tax will most likely be recommended for paying for the system, although Lee said that’s not necessarily what the county will approve. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has predicted the availability of federal grants.
Byrne showed his dismay for taking out the grade separations in the proposal, a concern Commissioner Bob Ott has also raised. By removing the grade separations, Ott is worried the new bus line will simply create new points of congestion.
“Downsizing the BRT proposal to what’s being proposed now eliminates the concept of the BRT,” Byrne said. “Why don’t you just run a damn bus up and down the road and pick up people wherever you can find them? That’s about the logic that’s being dealt with this issue. If I had any say in it, and I hope one day I sure do, that BRT proposal is dead in the water. Did I make myself clear?” Byrne said, prompting laughter from the crowd.
Melson wants more facts
Candidate Glenn Melson of Powder Springs, a partner with Marietta-based Corporate Risk Advisors, said transportation would be an issue as the new Braves stadium comes online in 2017.
“You know, in this thing, as I told you from the start, my job and what I’ve been trying to do for the last 29 years is gather the facts,” Melson said. “Cobb Department of Transportation and the state Department of Transportation, we’ve got to have a look at things, because it’s going to have to be addressed. Now we need to address it without dressing down the taxpayers, so we’re going to have to get creative, and it’s going to be an interesting battle in this thing, but we’ve got to do this without continuing to spend other people’s money.”
Barner not a fan of BRT
Like Byrne, Angela Barner of Acworth left no doubt what she thinks about the BRT proposal.
“Short answer on BRT would be personally no, but we should let the voters decide,” Barner said. “The voters resoundingly in Cobb County, 69 percent was against the TSPLOST, but still we should let the voters decide. With almost $1 billion rollout in transportation funding, that’s going to resolve some of our problems that we have now.”
The Georgia Department of Transportation is building a $951 million “reversible lanes” toll-road project along Interstates 75 and 575 through Cobb and Cherokee counties expected to open in 2018.
“But I’m not in favor of a $1.1 billion program, and I think with the new transit technology we should consider and with that going up it’s going to resolve a lot of problems, but ‘no’ to the BRT,” Barner said.
Tucker appears to be on board
Joking that Byrne was on the fence about the BRT question, retired Marietta Assistant Fire Chief Scott Tucker observed the BRT program was designed to help with traffic problems.
“It hasn’t been proven that that really will help or really happen. However, something needs to be done and the BRT is the next step — please not rail at this point,” Tucker said.
The estimated cost of light rail line along the same route would be $3.7 billion, according to Cobb DOT Director Faye DiMassimo.
Tucker complained about the rate at which taxpayers subsidize Cobb Community Transit.
“So the problem, if you think about it, is CCT is only 25 percent or less that’s actually paying for itself,” Tucker said. “So we’ve still got some problems that we’ve got to work out to try to make this thing a little bit more efficient. I understand everybody saying ‘no.’ I would say ‘no’ too except for we’ve got a transportation need in Cobb County that we’re going to have to look at, and BRT is one of those things that has been presented that may work, but it can’t work without a significant amount of adjustments because there’s too high a bill on it for what our return is.”
Weatherford says ‘leave it to experts’
Former Acworth City Alderman Bob Weatherford, the candidate being supported by Cobb Chamber of Commerce leaders, took a swipe at Byrne in answering the question.
“Well, unlike Mr. Byrne, I’m not a traffic engineer or a traffic expert. I don’t know,” Weatherford said. “That’s why we pay people millions of dollars to do studies, studies of which you should follow.”
Weatherford said he believes the task of an elected official is to set the direction, allowing staff and others to advise the best course of action.
“Then you make a decision based upon the results of those studies,” Weatherford said. “If those studies point to BRT, then I have to defer to those that have expertise in that area. I am not one of those. I will support whatever is best for the county.”
One of the studies Weatherford referenced is the $1.8 million “Northwest Corridor Alternatives Analysis” led by Marietta-based Croy Engineering, which recommended building the original $1.1 billion bus system connecting Kennesaw State with Midtown. After receiving the findings of this study in September 2012, the county chose to pay Cary, N.C.-based Kimley-Horn and Associates $3 million for an environmental study of that proposed route, a study that is expected to be unveiled this month.
“There needs to be something done,” Weatherford said. “I know the cost per mile on the BRT is one of the lesser ones that there are on any other types of transportation, and we desperately need something, especially with the Braves coming, and we want some type of corridor and some type of transportation to go from one end of the county to the other. Again, I wasn’t privy to that, I haven’t read the complete study, I know the results of the study, and I defer to the experts.”