“There’s a dramatically different set of people that turned out tonight,” Setzler said after the meeting, which was held in the Cobb Board of Commissioners meeting room. “I mean, after the battering this light rail concept has taken in four consecutive town hall meetings around the county, I think there was a recognition among the supporters of this that if they don’t show up tonight in force, have prepared remarks and get recognized to be one of the seven speakers who got to speak, then their message was never going to get out.”
Larry Savage of east Cobb, who challenged Tim Lee in the race for county chairman last year, said he was unimpressed.
“This forum tonight was very different, and I think it was somewhat staged,” Savage said. “I think a lot of activists who are in favor of this thing got together and filled up the room. I think it’s pretty obvious we had a stacked audience tonight. I’m sure that they’ve seen the newspaper stories that the subject has not been well received at some of the prior venues. They probably wanted to come here to Cobb County and knock it back a lick and make sure that there was some immurement in their stats, you might say, on the outcome of these meetings.”
Unlike at the townhall meeting held by Cobb lawmakers, where audience members asked their questions in person, the audience was instructed to submit them on note cards to a moderator, who chose which ones to ask. The moderator, Mattice Haynes of the Civic League for Regional Atlanta, also informed the audience that they were not there to talk about being “for or against the tax.”
After the note card segment of the meeting, Haynes did allow for public comment, but only for 15 minutes. Of the seven people she allowed to speak, five favored the proposed tax.
Malaika Rivers, executive director of the Cumberland Community Improvement District, said after the meeting she was thrilled to hear public support for the rail line. The project is of particular importance to her, she said, because, “It basically allows us to connect to the region’s transit system, and that’s incredibly important for our particular office market, which is the Cumberland area at (Interstates) 75 and 285,” Rivers said. “We’re the second largest suburban market in the entire southeast, but we’re one that’s not connected to any rail system, and this is a big problem for us. In fact, we’ve got companies that have moved away because of this lack of connecting issues.”
Rivers noted the Cumberland CID made up 5.1 percent of the state’s total economy.
“We’re very pleased with the project list as it’s shaped up, and we hope to show the general public about the benefits of these particular projects,” she said.
Rob Garcia, chairman of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce and one of the seven speakers, said his board has unanimously supported the transportation referendum concept for three years now. Garcia said it is important to note that passage of the transportation referedum is important to job creation, job retention and increasing the quality of life, such as air quality.
“So it’s something very, very important to Cobb,” Garcia said.
Garcia said in June the Chamber conducted a survey of its membership using Market Street Services and had a substantial response.
“Sixty percent or greater, which is a significant majority of our members, and the Cobb citizens ranked the transportation congestion and a lack of connectivity as one of the biggest challenges in our region, so I know a lot of people will have you believe that there’s a strong support against it, but I can assure you that we’re the largest business communities and one of the business advocates in Cobb,” Garcia said.
“I find that 60 percent of them believe that that’s one of our biggest challenges and as it pertains to transit specifically, 62.5 percent or 1,607 of the respondents believe that the developing a light rail line connecting to Midtown in Atlanta and Acworth as a slight or high priority, so it is very important to the business community here … and I think that data clearly shows that.”
Garcia said the Chamber has not yet official endorsed the project list.
However, “I think the project list as considered in addition to the other things being considered are very important and ought to be vetted out by people that are very knolled about he industry and people that we truly trust as stakeholders in our community, so we support a great deal of the work that has been doneMost importantly and finally make sure that this is not considered by itself. It’s something that has to be considered within the context of the local SPLOST.
Speaking on behalf of Life University was Dr. Gary Sullenger, executive director of enrollment management, who endorsed the TSPLOST.
“As Life brings thousands of students to our community every year, having a transportation system reaching out from downtown Atlanta to the Cumberland Mall is an important first step,” Sullenger said. “Ultimately we also want to see a light rail program that would extend further north to the campus of KSU with an important hub stop along the way, which we call University Station serving the students staff and faculty needs of Life University and SPSU.”
The proposed light rail funded by the 10 year tax stops at Cumberland Mall.
Robert Groome, a Cobb resident who serves as government affairs director for the Atlanta Board of Realtors, spoke in favor of the project list.
“As part of my job, I travel all over the metro area. In fact, just today, I have been in Cobb, Fulton and DeKalb counties, and I spend a ridiculous amount of time in my car. And it absolutely befuddles me that I have no transit, no real transit options that connect my home county to the rest of the region where I have to do business.”
Groome said he also looks to the future when his two young daughters are grown.
“I want them not only to have transportation options in the future, I want them to have job options in the future, and if we fail to do this, if we fail to enact this tax option, if we don’t fix our transportation problems, our jobs options will be absolutely dismal,” Groome said. “I don’t worry so much about myself, but I worry about my kids, and I encourage everyone here to think beyond just your own narrow interests, your own maybe individual pocketbook and think about the very future of this region and what we are going to look like, what are quality of life will be, and let’s please do the right thing and support this referendum.”
Joe Seconder of DeKalb County, founder of Bike Cobb, spoke of the importance of including street bicycling facilities in the project list.
“We need to be a world class city with a world class multi modal transit. Charlotte. Dallas. Denver just got a $1 billion in federal funding,” Seconder said.
Mike Holt, a resident of Cobb County, spoke in favor.
“We need to take off our hats and not worry about what’s going on in my part of the county or right down the street from me,” Holt said. “We need to consider regional mobility and I support this and I encourage folks here to do that as well.”
But Brett Bittner, vice president of Cobb Taxpayers Association, has reservations, asking about the direct association between cost and use.
“The other concern that my organization would like to present as well regard to operation maintenance cost. We have not seen anything that these projects will produce and how those will be paid for, whether they will be paid for regionally or whether they will be paid for by the county that they reside and what we will see in terms of the expectations in terms of operations and maintenance costs for the capital projects that this list brings about.”
Most of the meeting was spent on answering questions that audience members were instructed to write on note cards and pass to a moderator, who in turn asked a three-member panel composed of Todd Long, planning director for Georgia DOT; , John Orr, ARC senior planner and transportation program manager; and Faye DiMassimo, director of the Cobb Department of Transportation.
Panelists were asked whether the cost of the light rail and associated parking structures included money for road improvements to address increased traffic around the parking garages.
While DiMassimo said during the question and answer session that Cobb’s existing SPLOST money could pay for parking garages, she acknowledged after the meeting that residents may have to come up with more money for road improvements in the years ahead if it’s determined that state and federal funding isn’t there.
Panelists didn’t have a solid answer when asked how much of the rail line Fulton County taxpayers would fund, since most of it would initially be in their county. Orr said a Transit Governance Task Force, appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal, would handle issues on funding transportation projects that cross multiple jurisdictions.
“There’s a framework and process in place that will work with that,” he said.
Another question asked whether the sales tax money would be used to restore three bus routes Cobb Community Transit eliminated earlier this year. DiMassimo said the routes wouldn’t be returning.
“We would not restore those routes because they did not meet the productivity levels we want to achieve because we want it to be a well-managed service,” she said.
DiMassimo also addressed a question on job creation. Without giving specific numbers, she said the transportation project would initially create jobs in the construction phase and later serve to lure and retain business in Cobb.
As for a question about the possibility of MARTA operating rail in Cobb, Orr said that wasn’t likely.
“MARTA cannot operate outside of its current service area,” he said. “They cannot provide service without getting a lot of approvals.”
Long said the wording of the Transportation Investment Act ensures that the listed projects, which are taking place in 12 regions across Georgia, will be done in a timely and cost-effective manner. The projects will be reviewed by a citizens review panel and audited annually.
“Ultimately, your credibility is at stake,” he said. “If you don’t do that, you’ve destroyed everything you’ve worked for.”
So far, Georgia is the first state to do a project using a sales tax election to fund such a wide ranging transportation plan, Long said. The state legislature in Kansas recently approved a plan that will require a half-cent sales tax be used for transportation and another half cent for debt reduction.
“The opportunity we have in Georgia is unique, but there are a lot of states that are interested in doing it,” he said.