Why commuter rail will remain a heavy lift in Cobb County

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

A fascinating assembly of Cobb County's political and business leadership gathered on the state Capitol campus early this week. The object: To begin hashing out the county's evolving position on transit.

Metro Atlanta’s northwest powerhouse county has roughly three weeks, until the end of the current session of the Legislature, to decide whether it wants to be part of the 13-county regional mass transit program that state lawmakers are poised to approve.

Even if Cobb agrees to be part of a rail revolution, there’s then the question of how tightly it wants to be bound.

Cobb County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce bought the box lunches for the 30 or so people crammed in the room: Fellow commissioners, state lawmakers, business types and transportation lobbyists.

“I’m very concerned about the time frame, that we have only the month of March to get something done,” Boyce said, opening the meeting. “I’m trying to send a message that Cobb is serious about this conversation involving transit. We’re going to find a way to do this.”

But the hour that followed showed that the lift will be a heavy one. Call it a work in progress, one that deserves more than a pinch of skepticism.

Once famous for its insularity, racial and otherwise, Cobb’s pull-up-the-drawbridge past is indeed being rewritten — both by demographics and its own economic success. A growing African-American population on its south and west side has no fear of the city of Atlanta. The edge city springing up around the new Braves ballpark has redefined commuter rail as something other than a dirty word.

Ditto for Kennesaw State University, which now boasts one of the thickest concentrations of college students in the state.

Fresh players were part of Monday’s discussion. State Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna, is the newly elected occupant of a House District that stretches from SunTrust Park to the Big Chicken to the Marietta Square.

“I’ve got a lot of bright, big shiny new office towers, maybe a major league baseball stadium, and I’ve also got a lot of working families. Transit is an issue at the front of my priority list,” she said.

State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Austell, was the voice of rising Democratic influence. “My preference would be that we have someone who lives in the Smyrna/South Cobb area actually in the room,” he said. “Right now, we’re lacking that. We need to be at the table.”

And there was Sharon Mason, CEO of the Cobb Chamber, who let a stunning statistic run loose in the room. Of the business prospects that dismiss Cobb as a venue (and agree to a debriefing), 45 percent said they crossed the county off their lists because of the lack of “transit connectivity or a plan for mass transit,” Mason said.

That’s something that might not have been said out loud a few years ago. But while Mason spoke of economic opportunity lost, Cobb remains a Republican-controlled county, and many of those present focused on the political risk.

In fact, where Cobb is headed on transit may be a decision that was made days before Monday’s meeting began.

Last year, House Speaker David Ralston appointed a number of suburban Atlanta leaders to the commission that came up with the basic look of House Bill 930. Among the appointees was Bob Ott, a Delta pilot who is also a Cobb County commissioner. His district includes SunTrust Park.

HB 930 originally included a special transit district in Cobb, drawn by Ott, that would have served as a transit beachhead. A penny sales tax would have been levied within the district only.

That would have negated the need for a countywide referendum.

But when HB 930 came to the floor, state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs, the most powerful member of the Cobb delegation, pushed through an amendment eliminating the special district.

Which now means the transit debate in Cobb will be addressed only through an all-or-nothing referendum. It is also likely means that Cobb won’t plunge into a metro Atlanta transit system, but will stay at the shallow end of the pool – and watch what happens.

At the state Capitol meeting, Boyce was already speaking of combining a transit push with an old-fashioned project list of road and bridge improvements. The earliest a referendum could be held, he said, would be November 2019.

For most in Cobb’s legislative delegation, simply saying no to mass transit is no longer tenable. Changing attitudes are one reason. The fear of angering a House speaker, who has committed himself to the cause of commuter rail, may be another.

But it is also true that Cobb’s most powerful state legislators hail from the northern part of the county, where support for transit is softest. State Rep. John Carson, whose Republican district covers much of north Cobb, even sketched the outline of the campaign.

“It’s got to sell. It’s got to have value for money. I would say, ‘Regional connections, local control.’ And just beat that down, over and over,” Carson said.

There were vestiges of that drawbridge over the Chattahoochee River. “If nothing else, I just want to make sure when Cobb County’s taxpayers – from south Cobb to north Cobb, east and west – are asked to be part of a regional solution, that that regional solution is not just imposed upon us from, say, Fulton, DeKalb and the city,” said Ehrhart, presumably meaning Atlanta.

MARTA’s annual operating budget, serving three counties, now runs to $461 million a year or so. Figure in capital expenditures, and the price tag approaches $1 billion. Cobb spends about $13 million for a bus system that carries 3 million riders annually. That represents about a tenth of a one-cent sales tax, noted state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth.

“We have a tenth-of-a-penny transit system. I think there’s a desire to do more. I think there’s consensus around this room that we need to do more,” Setzler said. But he hinted that his support would remain fractional.

“I would tell you that a 30-year tax with a full penny for transit, given that we’re at a tenth of a penny right now, just seems as an order of magnitude out of scale,” Setzler said.

State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, who represents much of northwest Cobb, never said no to the idea of transit on Monday, but was easily the most skeptical.

“I think we’ve got to realize political realities,” Tippins said – which includes the likelihood that a metro Atlanta transit measure is likely to pass, with or without Cobb. He described a stampede.

“There’s a lot of people in the Legislature that are going to vote for any transit bill before them, as long as it’s self-funded under the counties that participate,” Tippins explained. The more money counties pour into metro Atlanta transit, the less the state will have to pay – which means more state cash for those outside metro Atlanta.

“We need to take the time and get this right,” he said. “Most things that people think have to be done immediately – don’t have to be done immediately.”

And that’s why commuter rail will remain a heavy lift in Cobb County. At least for now