A necessary drive toward congestion relief

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.

The dozen miles of U.S. 41/Cobb Parkway between the Kennesaw city limits and  I-285 is an unremarkable stretch of road.
Yet, what does — or doesn’t — happen in coming years along this hilly highway will speak to the future of both Cobb County and the greater Atlanta metro.
The broad, heavily used north-south corridor between Acworth and Fulton County is the latest arena for the popular Atlanta-style sport of squabbling over public transportation. At issue this time around is whether a Cobb County SPLOST approved for the November ballot should include money for road improvements that could eventually be part of a proposed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system.
Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee stoked the debate earlier this month by observing that individual intersection improvements could add up to the local match for a federal grant that could pay half the cost of the $500 million transit project.
The political firestorm that resulted led Cobb officials to rapidly hit the delete key, removing from a project list about $72.5 million in work that federal grantmakers might count as matching money.
A chastened Lee said during a commission meeting last week that, “My intent, if the board sees fit in the future, would be to bring the BRT project forward in a public environment, in a separate election, on its own merits.”
That backtracking is intended to douse any voter revolt that could doom the six-year, penny sales tax. The SPLOST would raise an estimated $750 million for various public work in Cobb.
Given the tenor of the times, Lee’s effort to dial down the political heat makes sense in a pragmatic way. Yet we wonder what would have happened if he had brought the same tenacity to the transit debate that he showed in shoving through in record time the deal to move the Atlanta Braves to Cobb.
Yes, we criticized here his actions then, but there’s no arguing that Lee embraced political risk to ram through a proposal he apparently believed naysayers would later come to appreciate.
America’s pastime is not a controversial transit project, though.
Yet, motorists using I-75 or Cobb Parkway during peak times know that relief is needed today. Not to mention the improvements necessary to handle expected population growth in coming decades.
Neither will come cheaply. But the price will prove a bargain compared to the cost of doing nothing, or grossly under-reacting to future needs, we believe. Clinging to the status quo and underinvesting is a strategy for failure in a nation and world changing at digital speed.
The BRT battle shows again two large issues that Cobb officials and the region as a whole must find ways to resolve. The first is endemic citizen distrust of government. That’s a tough problem, in good part because government’s actions have often taken a prybar to public trust. Yet we’re hopeful that an intense, sustained application of honest dealings, civic engagement, transparency and promise-keeping can improve things over time.
The second point may prove more difficult to rectify. Simplified, it is the widespread belief that there is somehow a free lunch. The kind of meal magically marked “no charge” that will pay for public infrastructure needed to both accommodate future growth and needs, or even maintain the roads, bridges and traffic signals already on the ground.
Both situations present a formidable challenge to Atlanta’s regional thinkers. To believe only that opponents of most any civic investment are a loud minority is to ignore a big lesson from the 2012 regional T-SPLOST. The nearly 2-to-1 whuppin’ that five-county penny sales tax took at the polls indicates a long-simmering level of government distrust.
And yet, one of the beliefs emerging from the T-SPLOST’s defeat was that smaller, more-local approaches might prove more palatable to taxpaying voters.
The nascent uprising in Cobb raises serious questions about this thesis.
All of which means that Cobb officials behaved logically in tapping the brakes on BRT.
Stepping back and methodically presenting the project to the public as one large, transparent chunk may be the best way to sell taxpayers on its merits.
Doing so requires convincing voters of an argument made in the project’s paperwork — that doing nothing “threatens to stifle the vibrancy, efficiency and important regional contributions” of an important Atlanta commercial and residential corridor.
Let’s get that conversation underway ASAP. Before it’s too late.

By Lance Lamberton

During last Tuesday’s Cobb County Board of Commissioners meeting, the board sidestepped a contentious issue.
Left unaddressed, it threatened to torpedo passage of another Special-Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) which most of the commissioners fervently want. It concerned funding for a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project, a half-billion-dollar boondoggle that would create a fixed-guideway bus route from Kennesaw to the MARTA Arts Center station in Midtown Atlanta.
Universally unpopular, the board removed earmarks of $72.5 million for “intersection improvements” (code word for BRT) along its planned route.
They reallocated tens of millions of those funds for gold-plated sidewalks, some as wide as 10 feet, and specified that $60 million that would go to a “Local Match for Federal/State Funding” could not be used for BRT. They left it open-ended as to where and how it could be used.
But herein lies the rub. The election for a six-year SPLOST will be held in November for implementation in January 2016 — which would lock in SPLOST funding until the year 2022.
In the intervening eight years, future boards will have enormous discretion to add or discard projects at will. Thus, once voters open the Pandora’s Box by passing this year’s SPLOST, they open the door to future mischief by urban planners who have not given up on their 20-year dream of building a mass transit system through the heart of Cobb County.
A better alternative, which would drive a silver stake through the BRT and any future iterations of it, would be for voters to defeat this upcoming SPLOST outright. However, our opposition goes deeper than that.
Since state law requires that the SPLOST be levied at a full 1 percent, many projects are placed on the project list regardless of need.
As an alternative, I asked that the board hold off on putting this SPLOST on the ballot, and give the state Legislature a chance to pass a fractional SPLOST in the next legislative session. The board can then come back with a SPLOST which is more aligned with needs versus wants.
As for which projects in this SPLOST are unwarranted, space does not permit me to list them all, even the most egregious and expensive ones. But rest assured, as long as SPLOSTs are levied at the full 1 percent, wasteful spending will be the order of the day.
However, Cobb County taxpayers can put an end to this practice once and for all, and set a precedent for counties throughout Georgia, by telling its Board of Commissioners that unless we are given the option of a fractional SPLOST, we will not pass it. We are tired of being forced to buy what we don’t need just to get that which we do.

Lance Lamberton is chairman and founder of the Cobb Taxpayers Association.

 

From an FAQ on Cobb County’s website:

Q. Is funding for bus rapid transit along the 41 corridor included in the SPLOST?

A. The proposed BRT project is not on the SPLOST list Tier 1 or 2.
In the 2016 Proposed SPLOST Tier 2, Cobb Parkway and Associated Corridor, Intersection and Pedestrian Improvements from Kennesaw to Cumberland is shown at $72.5 million.
This project includes corridor-wide operational improvements to intersections, signalization, and roads along with pedestrian facilities including Chastain at Busbee, Busbee Parkway at Big Shanty, Busbee Parkway at Barrett Parkway, South Barrett at U.S. 41, Spring at Cumberland Boulevard, Cumberland Boulevard at Cumberland Parkway, Cumberland Boulevard at Akers Mill, Akers Mill at U.S. 41, and Akers Mill at I-75.
These improvements are needed, regardless of transit expansion, to provide for operational capacity serving the tremendous growth along this corridor and major employers, activity centers and institutions (Kennesaw State, Southern Polytechnic State, Life; Dobbins ARB/Lockheed; Town Center CID and Mall; Wellstar; Braves; Cumberland CID and Mall; Galleria/Energy Centre).
Traffic along the corridor will grow from existing levels ranging from 24,730 to 46,740 daily trips with forecasted growth in 2040 to levels of 43,202 to 72,658 (trips). Necessary consideration of the managed lanes toll revenue agreements limits the options for improvement in the Cobb Parkway corridor.
The operational improvements maximize throughput, support managing congested conditions and the pedestrian facilities provide for a safe pedestrian mode nonexistent today.
These projects are presented in Tier 2 so that activity center growth and managed lanes completion precedes possible implementation consideration.
Tier 1 projects must be implemented first.
If collections exceed the revenues projected necessary for implementation of all of Tier 1, those projects in Tier 2 will be considered and prioritized by the Board of Commissioners at that time.


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