Why a MARTA move into Cobb County wouldn't have to be all or nothing

Local communities are largely the product of two constituencies. One is business-based. The other is voter-based. Political, in other words.

The two don’t always approach change at the same speed.

An unusual and important meeting took place at the state Capitol last Monday, between Gov. Nathan Deal and a small Cobb County delegation.

Called for another reason, the session became a broader discussion of transit and economic competitiveness. Of particular concern was the hunt for a second Amazon.com headquarters, and the possibility of capturing the future growth of other players in the dot.com world.

Republican-controlled counties, long seen as economic powerhouses in metro Atlanta, have suddenly found themselves at a disadvantage.

"A lot of their employees want to get to work without having to get on the road with a car. There may be a couple spots in Atlanta that fit that, but it's making it tough for Gwinnett and Cobb," Gary Bottoms, chairman of the Cobb Chamber, told his hometown newspaper, the Marietta Daily Journal.

“We need something at the state level to address all of that, because there’s really no way that a reasonable person can defend doing nothing,” Bottoms said.

The governor himself was struck by the shift. It was the first time, Deal said two days later, “we’ve seen Cobb County so interested in wanting rail and transit to come into their community.”

“When you consider large, potentially extremely large projects like Amazon, when one of their criteria is transit availability, it gets their attention in ways that I could never get their attention,” the governor said. “I hope that out of that we’ll have a broader conversation.”

But there are nuances to that meeting that require exploration. The time with the governor was requested by state Sen. Lindsey Tippins, an influential member of the Legislature who lives in the western part of the county. Around the corner from my house, as a matter of fact.

Tippins specifically requested meeting to discuss the need to protect a state-owned railroad bed, which runs from Atlanta through Cobb and on to Chattanooga, as a potential commuter rail line. The line is currently leased to CSX and handles freight exclusively.

In and of itself, this is a new direction for Cobb. But it is a relatively long-term contingency. A new lease, which would span 50 years, won’t be required until 2019.

Tippins would not describe himself as an enemy of mass transit, but he might admit to being a data-driven skeptic. He wants to see the numbers. For the last couple decades, growth in metro Atlanta has been focused along the northern arc between Cobb and Gwinnett.

Recent trends suggest the revival of downtown and midtown Atlanta as a transit and growth hub. But Tippins would need proof of that.

No, Tippins did not go off-script on Monday and begin talking about other options. But his business-oriented companions did, we’re assured by someone else who was in the room. And Deal indulged them.

“[The governor] asked why Cobb was not interested in MARTA,” Tippins said. The current management has improved matters, the senator told Deal, but historically, voters in Cobb have sensed that MARTA has “a lack of credibility.” Residents in north Fulton County have paid a penny sales tax to fund the transit agency for more than four decades, and now may be asked for more to finally get rail service.

“That’s not a confidence-builder,” Tippins told me. “I said, ‘Cobb cannot wait 50 years for a solution, whatever that solution may be.’ Which is one reason I’ve been very interested in making sure that we preserve the option CSX for commuter rail. Not as a MARTA line, but as commuter rail. In in the morning and out in the afternoons.”

Attitudes toward commuter rail are changing in Cobb, but at a walking pace that hasn’t yet changed the political dynamic.

By comparison, the change in the business community’s view of hard transit has progressed at locomotive speed — if you’ll pardon the metaphor. And the Amazon advertisement for bids to construct a second headquarters, at a cost of $5 billion and the eventual prospect of 50,000 high-paid employees, has stoked the boiler to a red-hot fever.

Amazon is specifically requiring sites that are transit accessible. “Typically, these kinds of conversations aren’t made public to begin with. The fact that this [requirement] is very public, with a very public discussion, is very uncharacteristic of economic development projects of this scale,” said Loretta Lepore, a government affairs specialist and former chief marketer at the state Department of Economic Development.

By going public with its requirements, Amazon has also put suburban Atlanta’s transportation shortcomings on wide display. When it comes to industrial recruitment, that’s not a good thing.

My efforts to reach a Cobb Chamber participant at the Monday meeting were unsuccessful. Bottoms, the Cobb chairman, was one of several – but would only send along a statement that included this:

“The business community in Cobb is being very thoughtful and introspective about the issue of transit and we are actively pursuing solutions because we understand the important role Cobb plays as part of the Atlanta region.”

The statement implies accelerated consideration of the transit issue, perhaps faster than Tippins and other Cobb politicos are willing to move. But it also called to mind an earlier conversation I’d had with Robbie Ashe, chairman of the MARTA board.

MARTA doesn’t go where it’s unwanted. Just last March, Keith Parker, who will soon exit as MARTA’s general manager and CEO, told Cobb business leaders that the transit agency would require solid proof of community support before it would consider expanding into Cobb.

But there are subgroups in Cobb. They include the Cumberland Community Improvement District, a 29-year-old district in which businesses tax themselves an extra 5 mills in property tax — for purposes that include transportation. It has become Cobb's economic center -- and put the oomph behind Cobb's effort to lure Braves baseball out of Atlanta.

When I got him on the phone, Ashe carefully repeated what he had told me months ago. “We are certainly open to further conversation about alternative arrangements that would permit portions of communities, such as a CID, to enter into a relationship to provide transit to portions of a community that are interested in it, without committing the rest of the county,” Ashe told me.

It might take new legislation, to allow for increased and long-term taxing power, Ashe said. But he assured me that he would welcome a discussion of the topic in January, when Tippins and other state lawmakers assemble once more in Atlanta.

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