The Cobb Board of Commissioners will vote Tuesday on whether to put a six-year special purpose local option sales tax before voters, but there is still disagreement on the board as to whether a bus rapid transit program first proposed by Chairman Tim Lee is still on the project list.
The project list is divided into two sections, or “tiers.” Projects in tier 1 are funded first, and if revenue exceeds projections and all tier 1 projects are financed, projects in tier 2 can be considered.
“Tier 2 projects aren’t even looked at until the final years of any SPLOST program,” Lee said. “Then they require … board approval to bring them forward. Then, you need enough revenue to pay for it over and above the projected and the delivery cost of the tier 1 projects.”
The BRT, which would run along a dedicated lane on U.S. 41 from Acworth to Midtown, is a $494 million dollar project the chairman wanted to fund with the help of federal grants. Commissioner Bob Ott said the federal government is more likely to pay for 80 percent of a project if the local government pays for 20 percent.
“So, a 20 percent local match on a $500 million project is $100 million,” Ott said.
Lee initially planned to use $100 million in SPLOST money to obtain the federal money for the BRT.
In the July 1 draft of the SPLOST transportation project list, a $78 million project for intersection improvements along Cobb Parkway and the associated corridor is listed in tier 1.
During a June meeting with Cobb’s mayors about the proposed SPLOST, Lee said all he needed to do was include $22 million more in improvements to Cobb Parkway, such as adding a park along the route, to meet the $100 million local match requirement for federal funding.
“What I was saying was initially have those intersection improvements coupled with other improvements in tier 1, which would be introduced as a local match portion for the federal funding, meaning that those projects had to be done anyway,” Lee said. “But fortunately for us, they can count toward the local match. So when the feds say, ‘What are you doing for local match?’ we said, ‘Well, we’re doing these intersection improvements.’ ‘Oh, great. That can count as local match.’ The fact that we had to do them anyway is just a plus for us because we didn’t have to spend additional money for it.”
An environmental analysis of the BRT is not expected to be completed for several weeks, and the federal government needs this report before committing funding to the project, Lee said. As a result, Lee said he decided to drop the BRT project from the SPLOST list.
“So the federal government would look at our (environmental analysis) once that’s finalized next month, and then they would make a ruling called a FONSI ruling — or finding of no significant impact — that all of our reports submitted to them for review are all in order and have no issues associated with them. That wouldn’t even be available until this fall, earliest,” Lee said. “So I couldn’t vote this coming Tuesday on a list that included a project that still was pending approval from the feds because then you run the risk of what happens if the feds find a problem. Then where am I?”
After making that decision, the chairman asked his staff to remove any reference to the BRT in order to reassure the public no part of the SPLOST would be used for the BRT, he said. When citizens pointed to the intersection improvements on Cobb Parkway as being BRT-related, Lee decided to move them to tier 2.
“So people were concerned that I was putting them in there just for local match, so we moved them to tier 2 because they’re a priority, but they’re not as big a priority as those things that are in tier 1 — those particular intersection improvements.”
In the July 7 draft of the SPLOST project list, the intersection improvements — now estimated to cost $72.5 million — were moved to tier 2.
Ott remembers Lee discussing the move at the commission’s last meeting.
“At the last meeting — on the July 8th meeting — if you go back and look, (Lee) flat out said during … some part of the meeting, he said that BRT was put in tier 2. And he referenced the $72.5 million in intersection improvements. And that’s still on the list, so as far as I’m concerned, BRT is still on the SPLOST.”
Lee maintains the improvements had to be made regardless of whether the BRT becomes a reality.
Commissioner Ott has a different opinion on the intersection improvement project.
“My concern is they were never presented to commissioners initially when we were given the unconstrained list to look at those intersections to decide,” Ott said. “Because if they need improvements, they might have been something that I would have put on the list to start with.”
Ott believes the intersection improvements could still be used as a local match for the BRT in the future.
“The problem is they continue to change the words,” Ott said. “It seems like every time someone raises an issue that the word ‘BRT’ is in something, all of a sudden, the word BRT disappears from the project description, but it’s written broadly enough so that it could be put back in.”
Even if revenue exceeds expectations and the intersection improvements are made, Lee says he will not use them as a local match for federal funding for the BRT. He says he would put the issue before voters as a separate item if the BRT is revisited after the environmental analysis is complete.
“And if we do look at an alternative transportation mode of this magnitude, it needs to be evaluated on its own merit independently of any other program,” he said.
Another issue cited by opponents of the BRT is a $60 million line item in the “federal/state/other funding assisted projects” list for improvements on Cobb Parkway, which is separate from the $72.5 million in intersection improvements in tier 2.
In the July 2 draft of the federally-assisted project list, the first sentence of the description of the $60 million earmark contains a reference to the BRT. In the July 15 draft, the first sentence containing the reference has been removed, but the rest of the description is the same as in the previous draft.
In an email to the MDJ, Ron Sifen, president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition, cites the $60 million item as evidence of the BRT still being on the project list.
“The $60 million item that is still on the tier 1 equivalent SPLOST list is clearly the same $60 million project that Cobb previously identified as a BRT project,” Sifen said.
Ott concurred with Sifen’s analysis.
“I just think it’s an insult to try to constantly move it around and say ‘It’s in here. No, it’s not in here. It’s over here,’” Ott said. “Taking the word ‘BRT’ out of the $60 million (item) doesn’t change the fact that it could still be used for BRT. And when the chairman labels or says the $72.5 million is for BRT in tier 2, you can’t all of a sudden tell me the following week that it isn’t.”
Sifen also said he believes these two SPLOST projects could be used for the BRT in the future.
“If the SPLOST is approved with these two projects on the list, then it will enable Cobb to spend SPLOST dollars on the $135.5 million of projects that are components of the BRT which are included in these two items,” Sifen said.
Lee rejected Sifen’s line of reasoning, saying the two line items aren’t related to the BRT and the facts are being construed by opponents of the BRT.
“If they look at the facts … and they still think that to be true, then that’s a decision to ignore the truth, ignore the facts and to foster a perspective that’s inaccurate,” Lee said.
In the most recent draft, released on Friday, the $72.5 million in intersection improvements is still listed in tier 2 and the $60 million item is still listed on the federally-assisted projects section.
The top of the page containing the federally-assisted projects states, “The following projects will have the same status as a Tier 1 project, treated as fully and effectually as if they had originally appeared on said list under the project heading ‘Local Match for Future Federal/State/Other Funding,’ but only if sufficient Federal, State, or other grant assistance becomes available. (For purposes of clarification, the proposed 2016 SPLOST does not include funding for the BRT/Connect Cobb project.)”
This statement was edited between Thursday and Friday, as the July 17 draft did not contain the clarification in the final sentence.
While Ott would not commit to his stance on the SPLOST before seeing a finalized project list, he said people in his district have made it clear they will not support the SPLOST if anything on the project list would allow the BRT to be built.
“If BRT is on the SPLOST, I can’t support it,” Ott said.