The special purpose local option sales tax would raise a very conservatively estimated $750 million or more, primarily for Cobb and municipal transportation improvements — none of them splashy or sexy, but all of them needed to keep pace with the county’s growth, continued congestion and road maintenance needs.
The prospects for the SPLOST renewal had been clouded, however, by commission Chairman Tim Lee’s persistent advocacy of the need to include initial funding in the SPLOST for a bus rapid transit line in the Cobb Parkway corridor that ultimately would cost $494 million or more. And that figure does not include annual operating costs.
Cobb residents have always been standoffish when it comes to mass transit, whether by rail or bus. They rejected the TSPLOST and its transit components by a 2-to-1 margin in 2012. There has been no surge of support since then for MARTA-type rail or the gourmet bus line envisioned by Lee, despite his best efforts. And nearly all those we’ve heard from have been clear they think a BRT deserves a vote of its own, rather than being part of a SPLOST.
Opposition to the BRT has been so widespread in recent months Lee’s continued talk of including funding for it in the SPLOST clearly had the potential to kill any chance for a SPLOST renewal.
Lee finally began to see the light in recent weeks, but still insisted on including several big-budget intersection improvement projects on the SPLOST list that originally started out on that list as components of the BRT. But that still didn’t fly with much of the public or with a majority of the commission. So at Tuesday’s commission meeting, he announced prior to the vote a $72.5 million line item that originally was described as a BRT project would be removed from the SPLOST list altogether.
He and Commissioner Lisa Cupid dueled, however, over whether another $60 million intersection-improvement item should be removed as well, with Lee arguing it was requested by the state DOT and was unrelated to the BRT. But Cupid noted the county had earlier described it as BRT-related and said its continued presence would undermine public support for the SPLOST. And she offered one of the best quotes about the relationship between government and the public we’ve heard lately:
“Constituents shouldn’t have to play detective in understanding our line items, and I feel that is what they’ve done to uncover that BRT was referenced with one particular line item, which has not been removed, which is a $60 million project,” she said.
Her argument was supported by Commissioners JoAnn Birrell and Bob Ott, and the item was removed prior to the final vote. Ott ultimately voted against putting the SPLOST on the ballot, saying it had too many “wants,” as opposed to “needs.”
So what have we learned in recent weeks? Several things:
Renewal of the SPLOST is by no means certain, but it now at least will have a fighting chance at the polls;
Public support for the BRT and other mass transit remains scant at best; and
The public is overwhelming in its opinion that if and when Lee or anyone gets serious about funding a BRT, that it should be the subject of a stand-alone referendum, not stirred into a SPLOST.