ATLANTA — Cobb legislators said Wednesday they believe the Georgia General Assembly’s roadmap to expand transit in metro Atlanta, including Cobb, may not be finalized until the Legislature’s final days at the end of this month.
And should that lead to legislators seeing a final transit bill with just hours to go on the last day of the session — scheduled for Thursday, March 29 — several lawmakers said they would vote down such last-minute legislation.
“Anything of this importance, we would be absolutely crazy to pass on sine die without every one of us sitting at this table knowing what they’re voting for in the bill,” said state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-west Cobb, who heads the 21-member Cobb Legislative Delegation, in a delegation meeting held in Atlanta Wednesday.
It was the second delegation in just over a week that brought together both the local legislators and Cobb County government officials, with leaders from the county’s business communities, such as the Cobb Chamber of Commerce and the Community Improvement Districts of Cumberland and Town Center, also among those in attendance.
Both the state House and Senate have passed transit bills, which state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, dubs “competing visions” of the future of transit within the 13-county metro region. He says both chambers are likely to stand by the bills that each passed last month. That would spark the need for a conference committee to hammer the competing bills into one, which would have to be approved by legislators before it could go to Gov. Nathan Deal for his consideration.
Were that to happen, Tippins said, General Assembly rules says the legislation lays on House members’ desks for one hour before a vote, and Senate members’ desks for two.
“If this comes to my desk on sine die with two hours, and we’ve got 80 bills to look at that day, I’m not going to vote for something that I don’t know what’s in it,” Tippins added. “I don’t think it’s good from the Democratic standpoint, and I don’t think it’s good from the Republican standpoint.”
Ehrhart, who has been involved in the House version of the bill, agreed.
“I’m with Lindsey (Tippins) — if I get something an hour before, and I haven’t had a chance to look at it, I’m not voting for it, either,” Ehrhart said. “But I’m going to work up right until the end, collaboratively, and try to get to a solution that meets the information I’m getting from Cobb citizens through Chairman (Mike) Boyce, the chamber and the CIDs and all those folks.”
Both House Bill 930, from House Transportation Committee Chairman Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville, and Senate Bill 386 from state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, would create a regional transit authority dubbed Atlanta-region Transit Link, or ATL, which would be tasked with expanding bus and rail through metro Atlanta, defined as the 13-county region currently under the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s jurisdiction: Cobb, Cherokee, Clayton, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Forsyth, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry, Paulding and Rockdale counties.
Both bills would open the door to referendums that would see voters decide on whether to self-impose up to a 1-percent sales tax to fund transportation projects. The House version also calls for a statewide fee of 50 cents for all rides in a taxi or car-hailing service such as Uber.
BOYCE: COUNTY WANTS IN TRANSIT PARTNERSHIP
Boyce, who coordinated the delegation meeting, reiterated to legislators that the county wishes to be a part of the transit partnership. It came on the heels of a Cobb Board of Commissioners work session Monday that gave the public and business leaders opportunities to weigh in on the transit issue.
With the final transit product potentially in flux, he told lawmakers that he did not want to see a bill that would reduce the service provided by the county’s existing transit system, CobbLinc. He also did not want a sales tax proposal for transit to jeopardize the county’s existing 1-percent Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. A 1-percent transit sales tax would generate an estimated $140 million a year in Cobb County based on 2016 figures, Boyce previously said, with a 30-year referendum amounting to $4.2 billion. Boyce is shooting for a November 2019 referendum vote.
“Thirty years ago, we decided to establish our own transit system, and it works — 3.4 million people ride this every year, and we need to, at a minimum, preserve this part of the system, because it connects people to where they work right now,” Boyce said. “We’re serious about this, but we need to have it fully conveyed to those who are forming the legislation that we do not want to risk what we already have, and this is going to come on the heels, if we do this referendum next year, we do not want to endanger the existing SPLOST that we have in our county, because that SPLOST takes care of paving roads in our county, major items such as police vehicles and equipment, and other programs, like we’re building new libraries, completing our healthcare centers.”
Ehrhart was among the Cobb representatives who voted for the House bill, and also had introduced an amendment to create a countywide vote in Cobb to allow residents to decide if the county enters the new transit partnership and imposes a 1-percent sales tax over the course of 30 years. Representatives moved the bill forward with the amendment. Early language in the House bill limited Cobb’s involvement to a special service district in the southern portion of the county, which would have been able to enter into contracts for transit service independent of the rest of the county.
“I think it’s better to go as a countywide initiative with the commissioners driving the process, versus saying that south Cobb will have this,” said state Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs. “Even in south Cobb, (that) could benefit only one area and not west Cobb, so my constituents are left out. So I don’t think there’s any push by the majority of the delegation to have an isolated map of any one area.”
State Rep. Michael Smith, D-Marietta, was the sole Cobb legislator to dispute Wilkerson’s assertion out of the 14 lawmakers present Wednesday.
“I’m willing to support south Cobb being in that map by itself,” he said. Smith had been among the Cobb legislators who voted against the transit legislation, saying last month that while he was generally supportive of transit coming to Cobb, he would approve it only if his constituents would embrace it, with the area’s elected officials having a say in determining the projects.
Ehrhart said that if the transit bills have to be settled in a conference committee, he is unsure whether one of its six members will be a Cobb legislator, but says he is optimistic the county’s interests will be represented in the final product.
“I’ll have a part of the conversation through the seniority I do have. They accepted the last amendment I put in, so I am a part of the conversation right now, and that’s important,” he said.
As for the likelihood of a transit bill heading out of the General Assembly and toward Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk, Ehrhart likened the progress to a road projects Cobb drivers have noticed for the last few years — the state’s Northwest Corridor managed lanes project, which includes about 30 miles of reversible toll lanes that will run south in the mornings and north in the evenings.
“We’re waiting for the Northwest Corridor to open so we can get on the road,” he said, “but we’re not sure if that last part of the bridge is ready.”