The special purpose local option sales tax would last for six years and be an extension of the present SPLOST, not a new tax. An estimated $184.8 million of the revenues would be shared with Cobb’s six cities, including $58.3 million to Marietta, $52.7 million to Smyrna and $32.6 million to Kennesaw.
Unlike past SPLOSTs, which included heavy funding for construction and/or widening of local roads, this one is smaller in scope and lacks much in the way of “splashy” projects. The only notable exception among the “first tier” projects to be funded would be $20 million for a new four-lane roadway at the Windy Hill/Terrell Mill road connector. The bulk of the rest of the proceeds would go toward non-sexy but important projects that will enhance safety and drivability, such as adding turn lanes, straightening curves, improving intersections, signal synchronization, replacing outmoded bridges and adding sidewalks.
SPLOSTs are a conservative way of paying for transportation improvements. Not only do they take part of the burden off property owners, they also spread the cost (although there is some dispute as to just how much of that cost) onto the backs of non-residents who happen to spend money in local malls, eateries and gas stations.
In an era when Congress and the Legislature seem to be spending less on infrastructure work, it means local jurisdictions are having to “step up.” And SPLOSTs have proven superior to issuing bonds for such construction work. SPLOSTs are a “pay as you go” approach that avoids the tens and hundreds of millions in interest payments local taxpayers would have to incur if bonds were issued to pay for such work.
In addition, by advertising a list of proposed projects well ahead of time and then giving the public a chance to vote a SPLOST up or down, SPLOSTs give residents a clearer voice in how their transportation dollars are spent.
THAT SAID, the future of the next SPLOST has been clouded by Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee’s advocacy of a budget-busting $494 million bus rapid transit line down the Cobb Parkway corridor, and the possibility funding for that line might come in part from the SPLOST.
Cobb residents have made clear repeatedly, most recently via their part in the resounding defeat of the 2012 metro TSPLOST, that they have no interest in funding light rail, heavy rail or fixed-guideway BRT-type bus services in that corridor.
Lee now seems finally to have taken note of that opposition. He told the MDJ on Friday he’s come to realize residents and the business community feel the BRT decision, if there is one at some point, should be a vote completely separate from the SPLOST.
Yes, there still are $72.5 million worth of intersection improvements in the Cumberland and KSU areas related to the BRT he shifted last week to “tier 2” of the SPLOST from “tier 1.” Tier 2 projects are those that would only be funded if the SPLOST generated more than the expected $750 million in revenues.
That, plus the fact the county’s projections are so conservative they do not include the bounty of new tax revenue expected from the $672 million stadium to be built for the Atlanta Braves and the adjacent $400 million mixed-use development, have led some to claim that Lee is trying to “backdoor” the BRT onto the SPLOST list. But he insists that’s not the case.
Lee’s explanation is federal and state matching funds for those $72.5 million in projects is available now, but might not be in the future. And the crux of the matter, he said, is intersection improvements must be built whether a BRT is ever built or not.
“We have to do those regardless of whether the BRT ever becomes more than a glimmer in someone’s eye,” Lee said on Friday. “They have to be done.”
If they are not funded via the SPLOST, county residents might later have to shoulder their entire cost, he says. And because the money for tier 2 projects won’t be available until the back end of the SPLOST, if at all, it would be 2021 at earliest before those projects would be built, the chairman says.
LEE TOLD the MDJ he’s aware the deep public opposition to the BRT has the potential to poison the SPLOST vote this fall.
So with three (JoAnn Birrell, Helen Goreham and Bob Ott) and possibly four (Lisa Cupid) commissioners against including the BRT in the SPLOST, Lee made the right move in throwing in the towel on the BRT, at least for now, and promising if and when it does come up, it will be the subject of a stand-alone vote.
The key to passage of the November referendum is by giving the public a reason to vote for the SPLOST, not against it. And Lee’s decision to put the BRT on the back burner should do just that.