Transportation congestion remains the No. 1 problem for Cobb County and the No. 1 complaint that residents want fixed, according to a survey conducted by the county’s economic development program known as Cobb’s Competitive EDGE, Lee said.
Lee gave his talk to a group of about 100 business leaders during a lunch at Vinings Bank in Smyrna.
The county chairman called on residents to help him shape the county’s new transportation plan which he hopes to have finished by next summer.
With the 10-county metro region overwhelmingly voting down a $8.5 billion sales tax for transportation known as TSPLOST last July, Atlanta media have complained about a lack of a “Plan B.”
But Cobb County has a Plan B, Lee said.
To begin with, there is the $951 million “reversible lanes” toll-road project along Interstates 75 and 575 through Cobb and Cherokee counties scheduled to open to traffic in 2018.
The county will be able to place its Cobb Community Transit buses on the new lanes and take commuters to and from Atlanta, Lee said.
Secondly, there is the proposed $1.1 billion bus rapid transit option under consideration that would take commuters from Kennesaw State University to midtown Atlanta. A $1.8 million “Northwest Corridor Alternatives Analysis” study led by Croy Engineering recommended that $1.1 billion project.
The county is in the middle of a $3 million environmental study of the project by Kimley-Horn and Associates, which is expected to be complete by the spring or summer of 2014, county spokesman Robert Quigley said.
There is also a need for what Lee describes as “pockets of improved flow” throughout the county.
“Intersection improvements, grade separations, timing of lights and things of that nature, operational type of things,” Lee said. “The Windy-Mac Connector, the South Barrett Parkway Reliever, the Skip Spann Connector, all the things that enable flow a little better. You know, we’ve got I-75 slicing our county right in half. How do you get east and west and west and east effectively and efficiently?”
Lee said his plan is to take the next year to hear from residents and his staff before asking the Board of Commissioners to approve a new comprehensive transportation plan in 2014 by late summer or early fall.
He also explained how he intends to reach consensus in a county as large as Cobb’s.
“You got to talk to as many people as you can and try to work towards getting consensus,” Lee said. “You’re not going to get 100 percent of the people all of the time. So you got to try to get a majority of the folks 80 percent happy.”
Commercial developers in the Cumberland Community Improvement District have told Lee they will build new buildings if he brings them tenants. The snag is that most tenants don’t want to wait 18 months for a building to be erected. The key is to find the tipping point where it makes sense to invest in a building without a signed tenant, Lee said.
“Well, some of the things that will help teeter that over to the other point is if we neutralize the attractiveness of the other corridors (in metro Atlanta) that are selling by having alternative transportation to just the automobile,” Lee said. “So you have BRT, CCT and the automobile as a mix, that’s a good combination that a lot of the other ones don’t have. We get duel reversible lanes, dedicated lanes outside the existing system, dedicated to carrying commuters on a bus system that could be increased as demand dictates, a lot of flexibility, no other region has that, no other county has that.”
Gov. Nathan Deal has taken steps to ensure the funding of the reversible lane project. As for how Lee intends to pay for the BRT proposal should the Board of Commissioners choose to pay for that project, Lee said that is still under review.
“So we’re going out and looking at options, and bringing them to the community, and asking them to select what they want to pay for,” Lee said. “It can be a public-private partnership, it can be grants. It can be debt. It can be development impact fees. It can be a combination of all those, it could be a SPLOST, it can be advertising revenue or fare box revenue. There’s a lot of different mixes in which you could do it.”
Cobb Schools Superintendent Dr. Michael Hinojosa, who was among those at the luncheon, applauded Lee’s talk.
“What stuck out to me was it looks like the county has a very comprehensive plan for a lot of different things that they’re doing and that was very impressive to hear the accomplishments, also the plans that they have coming forward and so, being fiscally responsible and keeping it a great county is certainly something in all of our best interests, so I was very pleased with the progress report,” Hinojosa said.
Retired Georgia journalist and syndicated columnist Bill Shipp of Kennesaw said he liked what he heard as well.
“Cobb County is in great shape, and it’s even going to be in better shape in the future,” Shipp said. “I hope Mr. Lee’s figures were correct.”