About 100 people turned out for the town hall meeting at Walton High School, and while three or four of the about 25 audience members who sounded off on the proposal said they supported the TSPLOST, the majority of speakers did not.
“They don’t believe that this current TSPLOST project list is the solution that they’re looking for to bring the relief for their families in traffic congestion that they deal with on a daily basis,” Hill said after the forum.
State Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-east Cobb), who was also in attendance, came away with the same impression.
“In general, they’re against the TSPLOST because of what was included in it,” Cooper said after the meeting.
For one, Cooper said constituents believe there is too much focus on rail and not enough going to help with traffic congestion. For another, families are struggling in this recession, she said.
“Businesses are closing, families are struggling, and I think another reason they’re against it is because in this county they were told that if they voted for the last SPLOST there wouldn’t be a millage raise, and then there’s a millage raise,” Cooper said. “There is some feeling that they didn’t cut enough in the … Cobb County government, and so I think it’s a variety of those issues that are making people very, very upset.”
Among the critics was Bill Green of east Cobb.
“California did this light-rail project and found it to be an economic disaster, and the bottom line there is it’s a subsidy,” Green said. “We elect Republicans for the most part, especially in this area. So the question is, is this sounding like a tax collection for the welfare-state sort of deal? I haven’t heard a lot of fiscal conservatives being very happy with this particular situation with the TSPLOST, so we’re really concerned about that. I will do everything I can to kill this unless I hear some benefits to east Cobb, so are there any? I don’t see any. You went through the list of projects. Most of them are on the other side of town. This is an economic boondoggle as far as I can tell.”
Cobb is expected to receive $1.18 billion in funding for projects if the TSPLOST passes. The largest line item is an $856.5 million earmark for Midtown-to-Cumberland light rail. If approved as planned, that light rail could break ground in six years and be ready to ride in 10 years, said Faye DiMassimo, the county’s transportation director.
State Rep. Ed Setzler (R-Acworth) provided a chart showing that with a “healthy” ridership of 22,000 riders per day, the rail line would need a 70 percent local subsidy. And if the ticket price were $2.50 per passenger, which is the current rate MARTA charges, that subsidy would amount to $7 per passenger, or $154,000 per day.
Douglass Talley said he doubted 200 people would use the rail line in Cobb, let alone 22,000.
“I can’t see any benefit to that rail system that’s worth $7 a person to this county,” Talley said.
Sylvia Talley of east Cobb asked if the operator would be MARTA, to which Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee said that has not been decided yet. State Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna) added that the discussion in the state legislature is to come up with a new regional overarching transit authority, not MARTA.
Simpson Middle School student Luke Bentley, 13, was in attendance with his Boy Scout Troop, 1776. The Scout asked about the rail line as well.
“With all the stuff that’s going on with crime right now, like you turn on the news and you see all these new murders and jury cases, would this bring new crime into the county?” Bentley asked.
DiMassimo said studies show no correlation between transit and an increase in crime.
Ron Sifen of Vinings said the county’s “alternative analysis” rail study underway has an objective not to alleviate traffic, but rather to redevelop Cobb Parkway. Sifen said his interest was to alleviate traffic.
“If we had a TSPLOST with projects that were going to do that, I would support the TSPLOST. This project will not do that,” Sifen said. “We’ve got allegedly a billion dollars of projects for Cobb County, $800 million of which is going to be built in Fulton County. The stations, except for one, are going to be in Fulton County, and the riders are going to be in Fulton County, so we need a project that is going to meet the needs of suburban commuters in Cobb County. This project will not do it.”
Fred Buford described himself as an unemployed Cobb County property taxpayer.
“I want to know, in these economic times, why are we here discussing an increase in taxes by $1 billion instead of talking about cutting $1 billion for property taxpayers here in Cobb County?” Buford said.
Buford said it was unacceptable to spend most of the county’s share of the TSPLOST funds on the rail line, leaving a small portion for the rest of the county.
“That just doesn’t pass the smell test,” he said.
Helen Story pointed out that even if the majority of Cobb voters oppose the tax, if the majority of voters in the 10-county metro Atlanta area approve it, Cobb will be taxed all the same. Story said that’s taxation without representation.
“It’s not fair to the taxpayer,” Story said. “We have too many people out of work.”
Mike Holzknecht of east Cobb was one of the few speakers to support the TSPLOST proposal.
“Once upon a time, Atlanta led the South in transportation,” Holzknecht said. “They provided leadership, initiative, and we were very progressive. Before that we were a third-world area. We didn’t have much going for us. With the leadership that was provided once upon a time development followed, good jobs followed,” he said.
Lately though, cities such as Charlotte, Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington and Nashville are taking away jobs from Atlanta, he said.
“While we’ve been standing still, they’ve been taking our jobs away from us,” Holzknecht said. “We’ve gotten a few, but mostly we just criticize and criticize. Here’s for Charlotte, North Carolina and all the jobs they’re going to get.”
But Hill and Cooper said after the meeting they intend to lobby the members of the 21-member Atlanta Regional Roundtable to revise the project list before the Oct. 15 deadline.
“I believe we need to strike that rail line and do something that alleviates traffic in east Cobb and Sandy Springs, and I don’t believe the present project list will meet the needs of our community as much as projects that go much further in addressing our traffic congestion and issues,” Hill said.
State Rep. Matt Dollar (R-east Cobb) who was also at the meeting, also spoke of the concern surrounding the project list.
“I don’t think that many of the Cobb legislators would have voted for it if they knew that 85 percent of the list would have been composed of transit,” Dollar said.
Cooper called on officials who support TSPLOST to listen to the voters.
“It seems that some officials that are in support of the TSPLOST act as though they’re offended or how dare someone question their decision in what was put in the TSPLOST, and I believe citizens have the right to question, and to express their concerns to their elected officials without those officials acting like their constituents are out of line,” Cooper said. “I think a lot of us will be talking to members of the roundtable in thinking there should be a revision of the list if they want it to pass.”
Among those in the audience were Commissioners Bob Ott and JoAnn Birrell; lobbyist Michael Paris and Slade Gulledge from the Cobb Chamber; Marietta City Councilman Van Pearlberg; Cobb school board members Scott Sweeney and David Banks; Larry Savage; PTA leader Karen Hallacy; Dr. Bill Hudson of the Georgia Tea Party and Michael Opitz of the Madison Forum; and SunTrust accountant John Carson and Don Hill, who are running for the seat vacated by the late state Rep. Bobby Franklin (R-east Cobb).
State Sen. Doug Stoner (D-Smyrna) and state Reps. David Wilkerson (D-Austell) and Stacey Evans (D-Smyrna) are hosting a town hall on the TSPLOST this Thursday with DiMassimo.
The meeting will be 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday in the Taylor-Brawner House, 3180 Atlanta Road, in Smyrna.
Also Thursday, state Sen. Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb) and state Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-Powder Springs) will host a town hall on the TSPLOST at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Harrison High School, 4500 Due West Road in Kennesaw.