In a first, Cobb County shifts on commuter rail

The history of metro Atlanta inched forward late Tuesday night. For the first time, the Cobb County Commission formally addressed the issue of commuter rail without use of the words “hell” and “no.”

On a 5-0 vote, commissioners offered up a definite maybe.

But tectonic plates can shake the world by moving only a few centimeters, a fact recognized within the state Capitol. The Legislature, down to its last allotted hours in this year’s session, is poised to make two moves Thursday. Both are designed to help Cobb — and Gwinnett County, too — get to an eventual yes.

With the Yankees due in town on Friday, posing a first test of evening traffic around the new SunTrust Park at the intersection of I-75 and 285, there is a temptation to link Cobb’s change of heart to the county’s acquisition of the Atlanta Braves.

But Mike Boyce, the new Cobb County Commission chairman, assured me that there is no connection. “Zilch” was the exact measurement he used.

“There are new players in town. We have a different way of looking at things,” the commission chairman said.

Boyce and colleague Bob Ott sat in commission offices a few minutes before Tuesday’s meeting in Marietta to discuss the transit resolution they would vote on a few hours later.

The idea has been kicking around in Ott’s head for several years, arising out of discussions with state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth. The resolution’s focus is on the state-owned Western & Atlantic rail line that runs from Atlanta through Cobb and on to Chattanooga. The line is now leased to the CSX railroad, but the lease is set to expire at the end of 2019.

A new lease, already sketched out by state officials, would give CSX control of the line through 2070.

The resolution adopted by the Cobb commission urges forces in the state Capitol to “maintain control” of the rail line, “given the long-range interests in exploring passenger rail connectivity.”

The cost of bringing MARTA rail into Cobb could run as high as $200 million a mile, and would churn up real estate its entire length, Ott argued. “We’ve got a railroad right-of-way out there that goes from Atlanta to Chattanooga. It hits most of the major cities in Cobb and connects the employment areas,” Ott said. “Part of the fear of MARTA has been the disruption. This rail line we’re talking about – this area was built around it.”

Commuter rail remains a sensitive topic in Cobb.

“We want to keep all of our options open. What those options are, right now, it’s up to the board to decide,” Boyce said. That decision would then have to be ratified with a countywide referendum.

“Anyone who drives around here can see we have traffic issues,” the chairman said. “We want to explore all options to see if we can mitigate some of those – knowing full well that you won’t fix traffic, because this is a destination place.”

But Cobb is no longer the same bedroom community that once viewed the Chattahoochee River as a moat, Boyce points out. It now imports bodies. At dawn, the county’s daily population stands at 750,000 or so. By noon, it has swelled to 1 million. (A situation that the Braves stadium could aggravate.)

As a result, thoughts are being uttered by an elected official in Cobb that were once forbidden north of the moat. “One of the issues for CSX has been they didn’t want commuters to interfere with their schedule,” Boyce said. “But we have software now that can address that. They can space trains out. It’s 2017. Let’s start using 2017 thinking to look at this issue.”

The specific target of Cobb’s Tuesday night action is Senate Resolution 228, which would authorize lease negotiations on several pieces of state property, including the Western & Atlantic line. The House approved it last week, after adding a phrase intended to recognize Cobb’s new concerns. The Senate is expected to give final approval today.

“My preference would be to remove the part about the CSX line from the bill,” said state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Republican from west Cobb, to allow more parties to become involved. “To trade away its use for 50 years would be very short-sighted on the part of the state,” the senator said.

To be truthful, persuading CSX to share that line with passenger traffic would be an uphill battle. The railroad is one of the more influential forces within the state Capitol, perhaps second only to Georgia Power. Insiders have told us that current negotiations are focused on moving freight, and nothing else.

More friendly to commuter rail are two transportation bills that, if lawmakers can avoid a last-day meltdown, should be merged into one on Thursday. The House bill in particular would invite metro Atlanta counties that have been rail-averse – Cobb, Gwinnett and Paulding — into an effort to sketch out the funding, construction and operation of a state-sponsored mass transit system.

The Senate version is intended to do the same, according to its author. “We’re trying to bring some of the counties such as Gwinnett and Cobb into the conversation,” said Steve Gooch, R-Dahlonega, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “They want to be at the table."

In fact, you have to wonder if Cobb’s sudden interest in the Western & Atlantic line is evidence that mass transit has something in common with religion. Late converts tend to be the most passionate.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.