Chairman backtracks on BRT plan
by Ricky Leroux
July 20, 2014 04:00 AM | 4244 views | 8 8 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tim Lee
Tim Lee
MARIETTA — The list of things Cobb County hopes to accomplish with a proposed 1 percent sales tax contains more than 100 transportation projects, but one project in particular could cause the measure to fail, whether it is on the list or not.

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.

Comments-icon Post a Comment
Cobb Taxpayer
July 21, 2014
History is clean - can't trust end-around-Lee who does not even call his own plays !
Michael Rousseau
July 20, 2014
Considering Acworth and Kennesaw are rapidly filling up with poor people a BRT line from Acworth to Atlanta would be PERFECT! What better way for broke people to travel to and from Atlanta? What better way to increase the number of poor blacks filling up the area - an increase of 300% in just the past decade. Has anyone looked at what has happened in West Cobb in the past 15 years? It is now basically South Cobb. It's just that the property values haven't completely cratered. Yet. But they will. White flight will continue, crime will rise, voters will vote for Democrats. And you will have your BRT line. Just give it time.
How can we trust ?
July 20, 2014
They change the name, they move items between lists, they delete some words, now they say it isn't there......

How can we trust them ?

And what else is hidden in the DOT project list ?

How can we be sure they don't use SPLOST money for BRT ?
July 20, 2014
Saying "They" is not fessin' up to the reality.

It is TIM LEE that is orchestrating the deception(i.e. lying). And you are correct to be concerned about what else TIM LEE is trying to deceptively ram past the citizens of Cobb County.

There was I day when I voted for Tim Lee. Now, I realize I wasn't paying enough attention. TIM LEE can not be trusted.

dyanmic du-SO
July 20, 2014
Sifen! Ott! SO?

Why are these Ott and Sifen gentlemen so opposed to the big plan for the Braves? What is wrong with these two anti-everything-ists?

If the Braves say they need Braves Rapid Transit along US 41 to the new stadium we are building for them, why are Ott and Sifen working so hard to sabotage the Braves (and thus the rest of us)?

If MLB customers won't go back to the stadium after sitting in a couple awful snarls, and there is no Braves Rapid Transit alternative, why, we ALL lose with our very costly stadium and mixed used putt putt golfs and go karts sitting there all pretty but pretty empty!

Let's send Ott and Sifen packing to Cherokee or Paulding with the rest of the NIMBY isolationists who mostly all moved away in the 1980s and 1990s fearing for their lives yet endangering and shortening their own lives via total car dependence.

Here's the rub that Sifen and Ott must be too thick headed to comprehend: Public transit has to happen. Period. "Cars for every trip everywhere every time" just does not work. Almost all of us realize this by now. Even if you never sit in traffic and always move at the speed limit, you are still being sedentary and will get high blood pressure and get fat due to car dependency.

Are Ott and Sifen scared some "hood" will take their iPad? If so, is their iPad's alleged safety worth the proven fatalities we get from all these blasted death traps on wheels?

Have Sifen and Ott seen car commercials lately? "We lived" is how they sell cars now! "WE LIVED" .. If you did not get into a car, it would not be a typical commuting concern whether you lived or not on your way in to work!

Get out of the way, Ott and Sifen! Cherokee and Paulding are the place for the likes of you two! Go be scared out there with the chickens and the rest of the peas in your pod!
July 20, 2014
Hey dyanmic du-SO, what have you been huffin', man? Take a breath...else someone is gonna take you over to the new mental health facility(oh, its not open yet). That is one heck of a rambling chamber of commerce inspired rant you let loose.

Here's a clue: Public Transportation HAS happened, dynamic du-so. Perhaps you and your isolated chamber hack buddies should venture over to Cobb parkway and check on the buses that run up an down Cobb parkway all day long.

Now, relax. Breath deeply. Think happy thoughts.

hasnt happened
July 21, 2014
Public transit has not happened in Cobb. What has happened is Poor transit. The people who don't want effective public transit have built a poor transit system up and down US 41 which is so slow that a bicycle is faster and is thus used only by the desperate, most of whom are poor and lazy.

Our poor transit system gets fingers pointed at it and exclamations made about it and nobody who has a choice would ever voluntarily use it.

What's needed here is PUBLIC transit, transit that anyone in the public would use. That is not a chamber issue. It is a human rights issue! The people making money from asphalt and cars gladly have us die in their system so they can make money and their buddies who employ us can make money, but what about us? If a few of us die practically every single day, who cares. SO what. There are plenty of us to keep shuffling the papers along, right?

Public transit is the real RIGHT TO LIFE issue! What good is it to see a fetus to term and give it life if its parent can then so easily get their baby killed in a cell phone car crash or even in a stationary car?

Cars are so ridiculously dangerous that they can kill you JUST SITTING THERE but no, we don't want no public transit 'round here.

What other items on the retail market can kill you just by sitting there? Not even a gun can do that!
July 21, 2014
Yes, bury your head in the sand. Look at the "dynamic growth and revitalization" that has taken place around Atlanta's other sports venues, the old Atlanta Stadium, Turner Field, and the Georgia Dome.

In the 1960's the stadium was built in a relatively depressed area that rapidly became a major depressed area and crime center. Rapid transit only helped the criminal element move in and then escape with their loot but it held many passengers hostage as easy targets. Now we can repeat the mistakes of the past and further degrade Cobb - hooray.

I frequently disagree with Ott and Sifen but I value their opinions and input. If you need a community that only represents your point of view than your should move not them. Why wait for Cobb to build to your needs, you will find an adequate apartment close to rapid transit in Fulton, Dekalb, or Clayton counties.

Keep it up and eventually Cobb can be as violent and depressed as the areas in Atlanta near the sports venues. Do you load your picnic plasticware with ants whenever you plan an outing?

I suspect that the reality is that you have never used rapid transit and just wish everyone else would so you would have less traffic to fight.
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