Lee made the announcement in a press conference at the Georgia Capitol flanked by Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews and state Sens. Chip Rogers (R-Woodstock) and Lindsey Tippins (R-west Cobb).
Lee said the proposed rail line in the Transportation Improvement Act project list “basically is being sacrificed for this project unless we can find some way of working together with the state to manage both projects.”
The chairman pointed out Tuesday that he and Mathews, as Cobb’s two representatives on the Atlanta Regional Roundtable, voted to approve the TIA list before Gov. Nathan Deal pulled the plug on the Northwest Corridor I-75/575 P3 initiative in December.
“We developed a list for TIA based on certain assumptions of projects that were going to be built,” Lee said. “One of those projects was the P3. So Mark and I put a list together that said, ‘if that’s being built, the next logical step is BRT to complement that as a third option to people sitting on 75.’ … The state made a substantial and material change to the transportation planning for the Northwest Corridor after the list was developed, and in my mind that warrants … trying to figure out if there’s a way to move the money from the BRT into this project.”
However, the Atlanta Regional Roundtable can no longer change the project list, according to its chairman, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson.
“There is no more roundtable,” Johnson said. “It ended when we had our vote, so there is no roundtable in place right now, and it would have to be done legislatively.”
Lee acknowledged that changing the list through the roundtable was no longer possible.
“It’s been recommended to us that the only next step that is viable is for legislators to intervene and make available the opportunity to move funding from existing project No. 35, which is the bus rapid transit system from Acworth down to Atlanta. … We’re asking legislators to take a look at this, work with state DOT, and try to figure out where we can fund the dual reversible managed lanes through the northwest corridor, either utilizing the funds here or through some other source.”
But House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) said last week he was “not inclined” to allow any changes to it before the public votes on the 10-year, 1 percent tax in July.
Rogers, who serves as the Senate’s majority leader, said he and Tippins have both spoken with the governor’s office about the I-75/575 project.
“(Deal) is absolutely committed to that, and whether it’s in this or not, he wants that to happen, and we want that to happen, and everybody that sits through traffic everyday coming down through 75 and 575 wants that to happen,” Rogers said.
As for who would carry the legislation and what the next step will be, Rogers said, “We’ll get to the next step when we have an opportunity for the four of us and others in the Cobb Delegation to sit down and talk about where we go from here.”
Tippins said he is interested in pursuing the change because removing the private partner from the toll lane project allows the state to bundle it with the TIA projects and complete it for less money.
“That’s reason enough in itself for me to take a look at it,” Tippins said.
Lee believes the $689 million funding earmark is sufficient to fund the reversible lane project.
“My understanding is the projects are compatible and comparable in terms of its total cost,” Lee said.
The I-75 project would be much different from the one that’s caused so much controversy in Gwinnett County, Lee said.
“First it’s separate lanes, separate two lanes that are going to be build to the west of 75,” he said. “It will have separate access points other than those currently used for the main 75 traffic. So this particular roadway, these two lanes, will work totally independent of the existing I-75, so the conflicts that they’re having with 85 being an existing lane only one lane, and access points being the same as the regular highway aren’t a factor.”
Lee said it was too early to say how or where drivers would pay the tolls, which would pay for maintenance of the new lanes.
The chairman also denied he was trying to revise the TIA list to help his election chances this year.
“For eight years I’ve been an elected official in Cobb County, and I’ve never made a decision based on politics, and this is certainly not the first one,” Lee said. “I’m here to serve (the people of Cobb County), and politics is not a part of that.”
Mathews said the latest proposal gives the transit tax a better chance of passing.
“I think that is something that will be looked favorably by the residents of Cobb County,” Mathews said.
Ralston’s press secretary, Marshall Guest, did not answer phone messages or emails about the proposal on Tuesday, while Deal’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, said his policy was not to comment on pending or potential legislation.
Deal halted the toll lane project in December, saying its public-private approach was not in the state’s best interest. The P3 would have added capacity along I-75/575 through Cobb and into Cherokee County by building two reversible toll lanes alongside I-75 from I-285 to I-575 and one reversible toll lane each along I-75 up to Hickory Grove Road and along I-575 up to Sixes Road. Deal explained in his State of the State address that he was, “opposed to contracting away Georgia’s sovereignty for a period of 60 to 70 years over a transportation corridor that is so vital to our future.”
Originally, the largest project on Cobb’s Transportation Improvement Act list was an $856.5 million line item for a Midtown-Cumberland Mall light rail line. But after receiving public backlash from residents who asked how a rail line that was mostly in Fulton County would help the majority of Cobb County, Mathews and Lee scaled back that earmark to $689 million, diverting the remainder to targeting road improvements at places like Windy Hill. Lee said at the time that the revised plan, which he and Mathews voted for in October, would use $110 million of the $689 million earmark on a “premium” bus service from Acworth to Atlanta. The remaining $579 million would be used on whatever form of transportation an “alternatives analysis” county study due in 2013 recommended. That could be rail from Cumberland to Midtown, in which case the county would have to rely on the federal government to give it $277.5 million to fill the gap, a hope U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-Roswell) advised not to count on. Or the $579 million could be spent on a bus rapid transit system from Acworth to Midtown, Lee said at the time.