More than 90 people turned out for the town hall on the proposed 10-year sales tax. Of the 21 speakers who sounded off, the majority focused on the $856.5 million line item that would go to build a 12.8-mile light-rail line from the MARTA Arts Center Station in Midtown to the Cumberland/Galleria area, which has a projected maximum cost of $1.2 billion.
The meeting, which was jointly hosted by state Reps. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth), Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) and state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb), began with Setzler and Cobb’s transportation director, Faye DiMassimo, giving an overview of how the tax would work, before questions and comments were accepted from the audience.
Dick Cottrill of Vinings came out against the rail proposal.
“If you look at the total funding commitment, the heavy emphasis is on transit, these archaic things that run on one or two rails,” Cottrill said. “It’s been tried in Seattle. It’s been tried in Miami, it’s been tried in Los Angeles. It does not work. It is funding transportation for the indigent at a very, very great expense for taxpayers. MARTA itself is inefficient. MARTA does not function as it was intended to function.”
Cottrill said there is not nearly enough emphasis on road improvements in the project list.
“I think it is only reasonable that we in Cobb County not only look at what’s going on in Cobb County . . . but also look at the balance at what’s going on in this 10-county area, because here we go back to this magic of two pieces of iron with fixed wheels on it, and it does not work.”
Darrell Galloway referenced an article he read by Sheriff Neil Warren about the implications for crime.
“What’s going to be the cost of extra law enforcement and public safety to be able to take care of the crime issues that automatically come in with mass transit?” Galloway asked.
DiMassimo said the national studies done on the topic state that crime does not rise when transit comes to an area.
“Did you read Sheriff Warren’s article? Galloway asked her.
Susan Stanton of north Cobb, a member of the Georgia Tea Party, said the line would not offer enough convenience to justify the price tag.
“The cost is ridiculous,” Stanton said. “I have to drive approximately 20 miles to get to Cumberland through the heavy traffic to ride for a few miles into Atlanta? Why?”
As for the proposal that the second leg of the line from Cumberland to Kennesaw would be funded with federal funds, Stanton said don’t count on it.
“That money is not necessary forthcoming,” she said. “It’s my understanding that the federal appropriations sub committee has recommended defunding smart-growth projects, which includes rail.”
Stanton said she is taxed enough.
“We already had a SPLOST in Cobb County,” she said. “We had a millage rate increase in Cobb County. And now they want us to pay for this? It’s just beyond belief.”
Local pipeline contractor Lamar Strickland also came out against the line.
“When I first saw this proposal for the light rail, I started to think how we’ve been challenged in the past, and I remember when DeKalb County made these screaming arguments about getting MARTA into their county and saving their county,” he said. “It was going to lift all boats, and if we compare Cobb County to DeKalb today, then we see it doesn’t look so successful to get that rail.”
Strickland also said the solid rock in the area of the proposed line is going to make the cost of the line soar.
“I think the people who are thinking about this light rail are not really considering the topography that they would have to get through,” Strickland said. “The other thing is I still don’t know why you would want to spend that much money to get rail a mile and a half inside the Chattahoochee River in Cobb County when you couldn’t get there from west Cobb to use the rail.”
There were some supporters of the line.
Kenneth Howell of Marietta, who represents the union that services MARTA, ATU Local 732, said Cobb has neglected transit for long enough.
“We need a transit system more than any other county that is surrounding us,” Howell said. “Because if we don’t start taking care of our people in Cobb, Gwinnett takes care of theirs, Fulton is going to take care of theirs, and we’re still going to have poor people sitting on the buses with no jobs.”
John Shern, vice chairman of the Cumberland Community Improvement District, also voiced his support.
Shern said he recalled Tom Cousins working with Cobb Commission Chairman Ernest Barrett some 50 years ago to get funding for water and sewer infrastructure.
“It turned out to be the economic engine that made Cobb County what it is today,” Shern said. “I think we have to look to the future.”
During the town hall, Setzler offered alternatives to the light-rail proposal. Setzler said 5 miles of Highway 41 in Clayton County is being proposed for conversion to a “super arterial” where stop lights are eliminated so it runs like an expressway.
“If we did that for Highway 41 in Cobb County from the river all the way up to Kennesaw that could be done for 25 to 30 percent of the cost of a light rail line,” Setzler said. “We could convert 36 miles of Cobb Parkway, the East-West Connector, Windy Mac Connector, to super arterial, 36 miles for the cost of just the light rail construction.”
Setzler also proposed using the Western Atlantic line, which runs through the county already.
“The state of Georgia owns that line, and there’s plenty of space to use that as passenger rail,” Setzler said. “It’s done all over the country in corridors very similar to this one. And for the cost of $1 million a mile to provide the platforms and the switch tracks to do that versus a $100 million a mile for light rail which services only a small part of our county, it’s an open shut case for me,” he said.
Setzler said the numbers for the proposed light rail line speak for themselves.
“When you look at the irrefutable cost, that a $1.1 billion project cost $4,000 per Cobb County household to build, and what we talked about tonight is that every single trip would be subsidized in the range of $10 a trip, and that the ridership numbers being forecasted it would be a $220,000 per day subsidy of the system, I mean voters need to understand that a $220,000 a day subsidy adds up to real money real quick,” he said.
Tippins found the audience “very hesitant” about the rail line proposal.
“I heard people question really what’s the true benefit going to be to Cobb County,” Tippins said. “It’s not my personal belief that it’s going to solve the major transportation needs of Cobb County.”
Ehrhart said the message was clear to him.
“I personally couldn’t support the percentages that are in there now — 85 percent of this for public transit, I’m completely philosophically opposed to that,” Ehrhart said. “It was the message from the people here. My constituents have completely verified that for me and I’m glad to hear that.”
The Journal asked all three lawmakers after the forum if they intended to campaign against the TSPLOST in the event the project list was not changed to their satisfaction. The three each answered that for the time being, they would work to revise the project list before the Oct. 15 deadline.
“I want to do everything I can do to convince the round table that this is a bad idea and they’re placing the entire TSPLOST at risk by losing probably 80 percent of Cobb County’s vote,” Ehrhart said. “We may be one of 10 (counties), but we’re a very populous one of 10.”
The $856.5 million for a rail line was included in a draft of the overall $6.14 billion TSPLOST project list released by the executive committee of the Atlanta Regional Transportation Roundtable last month.
Most of the 19 member Cobb Legislative Delegation voted in favor of the legislation in 2010 that puts the sales tax question before voters next year, with a few exceptions. Voting against it were state Sens. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna), Steve Thompson (D-Powder Springs) and the late state Rep. Bobby Franklin (R-east Cobb). Since that time, the delegation has gained some new members who never voted on the legislation. Tippins is one of those new members.
Among those in the audience Wednesday were Commission Chairman Tim Lee, Commissioners JoAnn Birrell and Helen Goreham, Mayors Tommy Allegood and Mark Mathews, Cobb GOP Chairman Joe Dendy and his predecessor, Scott Johnson; Lobbyist Michael Paris and Demming Bass and Slade Gulledge from the Cobb Chamber; Lanie Shipp and Mary Lou Stephens from the Town Center Area Community Improvement District; J.D. Van Brink of the Georgia Tea Party; and Don Hill, who is running for the seat vacated by Franklin.