Last spring the Georgia Legislature passed legislation that allows each county to ask taxpayers to approve up to a 1 percent sales tax for up to 30 years for transit. At $140 million per year, over 30 years, a countywide 1 percent sales tax would be projected to collect more than $4.2 billion.
In all likelihood, the transit tax will become the funding source for Cobb’s existing transit service, so let’s assume that the tax might provide as much as $3.5 billion to build, and to operate and maintain any type of rail transit.
Cobb could choose to impose the tax on only a portion of the county, but then, after funding existing transit service, Cobb might only have about $2 billion available for rail.
A few years ago, Cobb did transit studies called “Connect Cobb.” When these studies started, it was presumed that Cobb would build light rail from Kennesaw, through Cumberland, to Atlanta. The first study, called the Alternative Analysis, eliminated light rail, because it was projected to cost between $3.5 billion and $4 billion (in 2013 dollars) to build, and another $25 to 30 million per year to operate and maintain.
Construction costs and land costs have skyrocketed over the last few years, so the cost in today’s dollars would likely be closer to $5 billion, just to build it. We would still need nearly another billion dollars to operate and maintain it for 30 years.
That’s just for light rail. MARTA-type trains, which is heavy rail, might cost closer to $7 billion, just to build it.
You want rail transit to go all the way to Acworth? Add another billion dollars-plus.
You expect south Cobb to vote for this tax? If south Cobb gets nothing more than the transit they already have without paying an extra 1 percent sales tax for 30 years, why should they agree to pay a tax to subsidize a transit project that does not serve them at all?
In addition, if Cobb attempted to perpetrate such a scheme, this would probably become an economic justice issue. Cobb would likely lose this case in the courts.
If Cobb wants to throw billions of dollars at rail or any type of fixed guideway transit, an economically fair portion of that money is going to have to be spent on transit needs in south Cobb. So, if Cobb also wanted to extend the west line of MARTA to Austell, add another billion.
And we would still need more money to operate and maintain all of this.
HB 930 allows up to a 1 percent sales tax. To build, and operate and maintain, all of the above rail, plus operate and maintain our existing transit service, I doubt that a 1 percent countywide sales tax for 30 years would cover even half the cost of rail. If Cobb decides to impose the tax on only a portion of the county, a 1 percent sales tax might not cover a quarter of the cost.
Bus Rapid Transit has a bad reputation in Cobb because the second Connect Cobb study, the Environmental Analysis, concluded that if BRT was built as proposed, it would make future traffic congestion worse than if Cobb did nothing. My response was to ask whether Cobb taxpayers and commuters wanted government to spend $500 million of their tax dollars on a project to make traffic congestion worse.
If Connect Cobb had pursued a similar conceptual BRT plan, but designed to improve overall mobility, it likely would have cost $1.5 billion, but that would still be less than half the cost of rail. And BRT would have only cost around $10 million per year to operate and maintain, vs. $30 million for rail.
If Cobb were to pursue a transit package that included BRT, and implemented a 1 percent tax countywide, it would likely raise enough money to fund a BRT line to Kennesaw, and perhaps Acworth, and also fund a BRT line to Austell, and also be enough to maintain and expand our existing transit service.
The purpose of this column is not to argue for or against an HB 930 tax. I am also not arguing for or against BRT. I am just trying to provide an objective view of financial realities. BRT, funded by a 1 percent sales tax, is financially plausible. Rail is not.
What about the CSX corridor? Without going through painful details, by the time you made passenger rail feasible in this corridor, and connected it to MARTA, it might be just as expensive as building a new MARTA rail line.
Cobb should avoid leading people to expect that a 1 percent HB 930 sales tax could fund rail. If we move forward with a plan that will cost billions more than the HB 930 tax can collect, the shortfall will have to be paid for with astronomically higher property taxes.