County transportation officials say the proposal would be a major step toward a true regional transit system, funding new services, such as bus rapid transit lines that could connect South Cobb and cities along the I-75 corridor to MARTA stations in Atlanta.
The money could also help with Cobb’s portion of a regional project to install bus rapid transit routes along the top end of I-285. Late last year, commissioners agreed to spend $547,000 on its share of a $16 million study for the project, a first-of-its-kind collaboration with MARTA and three other metro Atlanta counties.
If the sales tax is approved, Cobb’s long-term transit plans also call for expanding local bus routes and improving connectivity between key county nodes such as the Cumberland area, South Cobb, and cities such as Marietta and Smyrna.
Commissioner Monique Sheffield, who represents South Cobb, said she struggled with the 30-year length of the tax, but ultimately decided long-term investments are needed. Since 1990, the county has grown from a population of 447,745 to 766,000 today. By the time a 30-year tax would expire, demographers anticipate Cobb will have more than 1 million residents.
“Our decisions on transportation and transit should be contemplated through the lens of a generational investment,” said Sheffield, a Democrat from District 4. “How will our decisions today benefit your grandchildren and their children?”
The Democratic majority will have to authorize the ballot measure along party lines. Many county residents have no desire to spend their tax dollars on transit, and Republicans Keli Gambrill and JoAnn Birrell, who represent less dense suburban and rural areas, oppose the 30-year tax. They prefer to consider a 5-year transportation tax that could be used for roads and sidewalks.
“In West Cobb they are OK with not having transit,” said Gambrill, the District 1 commissioner. “They don’t want that.”
Conservative opposition to transit became a campaign issue for cityhood supporters, even though cities have no control over whether the county holds a transit referendum. Voters rejected all three cityhood questions on Tuesday.
Cupid had initially pushed for a referendum this fall, but the delay could work in transportation advocates’ favor. It will be a presidential election year, which has higher turnout than midterm elections.
Waiting has an opportunity cost, as well. The sooner the election is held, the sooner the county can hope to capitalize on federal transportation funding that is often awarded to places willing to make sustained local investments of their own.