Rail supporters including Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews; Atlanta Regional Commission Chairman Tad Leithead, who also chairs the Cumberland Community Improvement District; and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed have a very specific answer to critics who say the $856.5 million earmarked for Cumberland-to-Midtown rail won’t serve the majority of Cobb’s needs since it ends just a mile within the county.
True, funding in next year’s tax referendum stops the rail line at Cumberland. But a second leg from Cumberland to Acworth — estimated to cost $2.1 billion by Cobb Department of Transportation Director Faye DiMassimo — could be paid by the federal government, they say.
However, Price, who chairs the House Republican Policy Committee and sits on the House Committee on Ways and Means and the House Budget Committee, said he doesn’t believe it is realistic to bank on federal dollars paying for the second leg of the line.
“I’d be surprised if those resources were there,” Price said. “I think we need to be smarter about the state rail that we’re thinking about.”
Price said it’s clear the state needs regional or statewide funding for transportation infrastructure, which has been allowed to stagnate over the last decade or two. However, “the finite nature of federal monies right now and the absolute necessity that we get our house in order at the federal level is going to require a prioritization of all of the money we spend federally,” Price said, adding that “the ability of the feds to step in and say, ‘OK, here’s the check,’ is going to get less, not more. I just think it is more realistic to plan in a way that relies much more on local, regional and state resources as opposed to federal resources.”
State Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) said as a leader in the Republican-controlled U.S. House, Price knows what he’s saying.
“That is the clearest statement yet, and it ought to be the death knell for that particular project on the list come Oct. 15,” Ehrhart said. “Note to Tad Leithead and the Cumberland CID: Get the memo.”
Ehrhart said Price’s comments should also satisfy Cobb Board of Commissioners Chairman Tim Lee’s oft-repeated comment that if Lee can’t get a clear indication from state government that it plans to fund the rail project moving forward, Lee won’t support it.
“So that ought to not only satisfy Chairman Lee, but hopefully (Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews) as well that that project needs to no longer be on the transportation improvements list, and I hope that will be the case,” Ehrhart said.
Lee and Mathews represent Cobb on the 21-member roundtable charged by law with finalizing a transportation list by Oct. 15.
Ehrhart said rail supporters argue that federal dollars will pay for the second leg because they don’t have anything else to support the project.
“They have nothing else other than this fantasy,” Ehrhart said. “It won’t stand up on the facts. It’s the rail line to ‘no end.’ Instead of the bridge to nowhere, it’s the rail line to ‘no end,’ because it won’t be built on time. It won’t be built under budget. Those kinds of projects never are. And it won’t be done until 2024.”
Ehrhart mocked a recent poll on the proposed tax conducted by Atlanta media, which he says avoids asking the specific questions in favor of generalities.
“Why don’t you ask the question to the people in Cobb that 85 cents of your transportation dollars is going to one project, that’s public transit that goes a mile into Cobb and won’t be done until 2024?” Ehrhart said. “But they won’t ask that question. They just ask, ‘Do you want some kind of transportation that will relieve congestion?’ Of course you’re going to get a positive. They don’t want to know. That goes back to that fantasy if you don’t have the facts, we’ll create a fantasy and hope that it might get there. And that’s what it is. For Tom Price to say that, that ought to stake it through the heart.”
Mathews said there still might be avenues for funding the line’s second leg.
“I don’t know enough about it to really make a comment on it, but the information we’re getting is from the Federal Transit Administration that it would be a very good New Starts Project, which is one of the programs they have for new programs,” Mathews said.
Mathews said he isn’t suggesting that Price is uninformed.
“He knows very much what he’s talking about, but I think there’s a lot of stuff that is up in the air right now, and there is a lot of speculation on what will be cut, what could be cut, but until something is actually cut we really don’t know where we stand,” Mathews said.
Like Ehrhart, state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) called Price’s remarks “right on target.”
“Everybody wants to get the deficit under control, so that means you’re going to have to stop spending or cut way back on spending in a very aggressive fashion,” Tippins said.
To rely on federal dollars to pay for a Cumberland to Acworth line is overly optimistic, Tippins said.
“My Mama always had a saying,” Tippins said. “She said, ‘Son, don’t count your chickens before your eggs hatch.’”
Tippins explained why rail supporters are making the argument about federal funding.
“They want light rail, and they will make any argument that they can to try to sell it and put it in its best light,” Tippins said.
The west Cobb senator referenced the county’s “Alternative Analysis Study” on transit, which won’t be finalized until Feb. 2013, long after voters head to the polls in July to determine whether they want to tax themselves for ten years.
“They say this study is an absolute necessity to get federal funding, if you get it,” Tippins said. “But I’ve also been told there is a reasonable possibility that this study could come back and say that bus rapid transit may actually be more serviceable and reach more people than a fixed rail line because of the flexibility of buses that fixed rail does not have. I mean, when you look at the population as spread out as it is and as low density as we have, it’s just hard for me to see where a fixed rail line is going to make a whole lot of sense.”