A connection exists between Cobb County’s snatching of the Atlanta Braves from their current home across the Chattahoochee River, and that county’s current debate over mass transit.
But it is not the nexus you might think. Yes, the construction of the new Braves stadium at the intersection of Interstates 285 and 75 has forced a rethinking of transportation in that overburdened area. That is a fact.
Yet it is not a fact weighty enough to change an ingrained philosophy, to overcome Cobb’s historical reluctance to tie itself more closely to the metro area. Or to the city of Atlanta, in particular.
That pressure has another source: The board rooms of metro Atlanta.
Locally, we have a business class growing increasingly uncomfortable with regional feudalism, the chopping of metro Atlanta into smaller and smaller governmental pieces. We also have corporations, established as well as prospective, eager to court a millennial generation of car-weary employees who don’t view mass transit through race-tinged glasses.
Put those two factors together, and many Republicans have concluded that a unified transit system is a necessary ingredient for future economic development in metro Atlanta. Many Republicans, but far from all.
Cobb remains a rich vein of transit hold-outs. Which is one reason that calls have erupted there, demanding a public referendum on a $500 million bus rapid transit system that has been only vaguely referenced on a few government documents.
These are not transit-friendly gestures. Cobb overwhelmingly voted down the 2012 TSPLOST, which would have helped finance a BRT system.
Last March, during debate on House Bill 170, the measure raising nearly $1 billion in new annual funds for roads and bridges, state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, and two other Cobb GOP lawmakers proposed an amendment to require county referendums wherever “fixed guide-way transit” is proposed. The amendment lost by only three votes.
State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, a Republican from west Cobb, now says he may propose local legislation next year that would require county voters to approve any move toward a bus rapid transit system.
He worries about continued costs. A new revenue stream would be required. “I think 30 to 35 percent is all you ever get out of the fare box. That concerns me,” Tippins said.
The senator is unimpressed with the business case for connectivity. “I’ve had people tell me quite frankly, ‘You ought to get with the 20th century. Transit’s the way to go. If Cobb County had signed on in the ‘60s when they talked about MARTA, look where we’d be today.’”
“I guess the question I’ve got to ask is, ‘Well, where would we be?’” Tippins said. “Make the case to me why Cobb is in a worse position than it was 40 years ago. And make the case how Fulton and DeKalb are in a better position than they were 40 years ago.”
Yet expanded mass transit has fans in Cobb, particularly among the business class we mentioned. So Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee has quietly worked toward finding the magic federal funding match that might pacify at least the financial concerns that accompany major public transit projects.
And finally, ladies and gentlemen, we come to the Braves connection.
In November 2013, Lee pulled off one of the great civic coups of the decade, luring the Braves out of Turner Field with the promise of a partially public-funded stadium and the right to control (and profit from) economic projects in the surrounding acreage.
Negotiations were conducted in extraordinary secrecy. Even Lee’s fellow commissioners were kept in the dark until the last moment. A vote of approval was rushed through with questions unanswered. But the prize was such – and it is hard to overstate the local, public delight — that the lack of transparency was overlooked, or forgiven.
Two years later, you have many in Cobb wondering whether an isolated exception has become an operating style. Until Lee reiterated his promise this week in a Journal-Constitution editorial column, the county commission chairman had his board colleagues guessing whether he still thought a countywide vote was necessary.
Then on Wednesday , AJC reporter Dan Klepal reported that a key environmental study, necessary for Cobb to qualify for a federal grant of up to $250 million, contains false statements about that proposed BRT venture.
Among other things, the county filing says commissioners “accepted” the $500 million bus rapid transit project as the preferred alternative for transportation improvements – an important measure of public support needed to qualify for federal funding.
There has been no such vote. Lee’s deputy now says the county meant “accepted” in that commissioners heard a presentation and didn’t object afterwards. Yeah, right. And by silently listening to Donald Trump on Tuesday , you “accepted” him as the next occupant of the White House.
That’s the Braves connection to debate over mass transit in Cobb. It’s about transparency and trust. And right now, the lack of one has led to a shortage of the other. It needs fixing, and quick.
Otherwise, if mass transit ever comes up for a vote again in Cobb County, Tim Lee may not be the best fellow to sell it.
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