Lee said the $100 million line item is needed to obtain federal funding to pay for the $494 million transit system.
“It’s up to us to decide whether we’re going to look forward and invest in the future like we always have in Cobb County or we’re going to say, ‘Let’s do the safe thing, let’s do the safe thing’ and do nothing and let it get worse,” Lee said, during a joint meeting between the Board of Commissioners and Cobb’s mayors at the senior center off Powder Springs Road.
Everyone was in attendance except Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews.
“I’m asking you to consider heavily supporting this project for the reasons we just talked about, and when I call each of you in the next two weeks I’ll look for your response,” Lee told them.
The county is preparing to ask voters to approve a 1 percent, special purpose local option sales tax in November, projected to collect $750 million over its six-year life.
To include the $100 million line item for the BRT on the SPLOST list, Lee needs support from two of the four district commissioners. All four told the MDJ they do not want to include the BRT on the SPLOST list.
Lee introduced a financing strategy for the BRT on Friday that raised Commissioner Bob Ott’s eyebrows, saying $78 million in projects have been included in the SPLOST list for improvements along U.S. 41 such as “signalization synchronization, nine intersection improvements, safety improvements and pedestrian walkway improvements.”
“Let’s say BRT wasn’t even an inkling,” Lee said. “We’d have on that list $80 million for (U.S.) 41 improvements. So if we take that $80 million, we could add $20 more million of additional improvements that qualify as our $100 million match toward the feds. The fed want to see $100 million in the game to get the rest of it.”
Where are the projects?
Yet Ott says those $78 million in SPLOST projects are nowhere to be found.
“I am not aware where the $78 million is coming from because there are not intersections listed anywhere on the SPLOST list,” Ott said after the meeting. “I’d like to know where those are because they’re not on any of the lists that we were given as commissioners. I have no idea where they are so I’d like to know what he’s talking about.”
Another absence from the SPLOST list is the words bus rapid transit. Instead, there is a $100 million line item called “Connect Cobb, Phase I High capacity multi-modal Transit along Cobb Parkway.”
Ott believes it’s an attempt to rebrand the BRT so voters will approve it.
“I think that this is just a continuation of trying to call it something different,” Ott said. “I just don’t think BRT is right for that corridor.”
Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said after the meeting she doesn’t support placing BRT on the SPLOST list either.
“I don’t think it needs to be on SPLOST; I think we need to look at other ways to fund it if we do it at all,” Birrell said.
Even Lee’s strongest ally on the board, Commissioner Helen Goreham, opposes including BRT on the SPLOST list.
“I believe that it should be two different referendum items,” Goreham said. “One for the BRT and one for SPLOST. I still have a fear of losing approval of the SPLOST based on the BRT, so let’s separate the two and leave it to the voters to decide.”
A Mercedes of transit
Commissioner Lisa Cupid said after hearing Lee’s speech, her mind was unchanged.
“And it almost hardens my position,” Cupid said.
Cupid said when she first took office Lee spoke of how south Cobb needed more investment than other areas of the county during his State of the County address.
“I have seen nothing to show that we’re going to actualize that,” Cupid said.
Cupid said Lee’s passion for the BRT from Kennesaw State to Midtown was not lost on her.
“There’s a passion shown for wanting to build out transit here that I have not seen shown when people have asked for transit in south Cobb when they’ve expressed need,” she said. “It’s very frustrating because I just can’t get people to work next door on a bus line, but I’m going to bring in a Mercedes of transit?”
Mayors split on including BRT in SPLOST
Powder Springs Mayor Pat Vaughn said it was a moot point to ask the mayors what they thought if Lee didn’t have the votes from his board.
“I think perhaps many of us have received phone calls and emails from citizens that are not in favor of it,” Vaughn said.
She said the majority of people who have called her say they are not in favor of the BRT proposal.
“And many of them don’t understand, and I think our citizens are looking at it as ‘Well, what benefit is this to Powder Springs?’ It really doesn’t help the district out here very much, and I listened to him, and I understand the need, but I also understand the need for the SPLOST itself and the many needs of the cities.”
Vaughn agrees with Goreham that there should be separate votes for the SPLOST and BRT.
“That’s how I feel because it would be really devastating to our city if we would lose it all. I do like her idea on that. And I think that’s fair,” Vaughn said.
Lee said a recent poll found that among likely voters in the general election, 61 percent said they would vote in favor of a six-year SPLOST. When pollsters asked about the BRT, 56 percent said they would vote for the SPLOST.
Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon said he noticed support for the SPLOST dropped when the BRT was introduced.
“If it’s as big a controversial issue as it seems to be, I would say that I’d rather see the SPLOST voted on and approved without the BRT,” Bacon said.
Acworth Mayor Tommy Allegood said he supports the idea of the bus transit system, but, like Bacon, was worried it would harm the SPLOST.
“My concern is that the voters may get the projects kind of mixed up, may be upset, maybe not understand the importance of the bus rapid transit and not support that and then in turn everybody loses their project, so I haven’t made up my mind at this point,” Allegood said.
“Tim Lee did a good job today making a case for a transit system. I think my question, may be like Helen’s, is do we need a different funding mechanism?”
Austell Mayor Joe Jerkins and Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin say they support including the BRT in the SPLOST list.
Tumlin admitted there was a risk to including a controversial item on the SPLOST list.
But, “I think the BRT makes a lot of sense, and whether it’s gas prices — they’re always going to be fighting in the Middle East — I think cars are our biggest polluters. Quality of life, I think, is the way to go, and we can’t just keep laying asphalt down. We’re at a saturation point.”
Lee speculated after the meeting why the BRT project had become a lightning rod.
“My feeling is that there is a small minority of people that just say ‘no’ to everything and that small, loud minority is gathering the attention of the people, and they’re not looking to the future,” Lee said.