Cobb County explores bus rapid transit proposal for 2024 transit tax vote

Cobb officials unveiled initial proposals for transit expansion. (Courtesy of Cobb County)

Cobb officials unveiled initial proposals for transit expansion. (Courtesy of Cobb County)

Cobb officials unveiled the initial plans Tuesday for the transit tax they plan to put before voters in November 2024.

Commissioners are considering a mobility Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (M-SPLOST) that could pay for a bus rapid transit system, a microtransit on-demand program, and transportation facilities in the county.

Drew Raessler, the county’s Department of Transportation director, detailed the options that commissioners and the public are considering: either a 0.5% or 1% sales tax, lasting for 10 years or 30 years.

The 1% sales tax is projected to collect nearly $11 billion over 30 years; the 0.5% sales tax is projected to collect $5.5 billion over 30 years.

The 30-year proposal includes a $4.5 billion transit expansion with seven bus rapid transit routes with a dedicated lane and three arterial rapid transit routes, totaling 108 miles.

This map shows the proposed high-capacity transit routes, including bus rapid transit and arterial rapid transit, under a 30-year M-SPLOST program. The board has not decided which plan to put before voters in 2024. Cobb County

Credit: Cobb County

icon to expand image

Credit: Cobb County

The routes would stretch from Kennesaw along the Cobb Parkway down into Marietta; along Austell Road and Floyd Road into Mableton; across I-20 into the city of Atlanta; from Marietta over to Powers Ferry Road down into Cumberland and across into Atlanta; and from Cumberland along I-285 south into South Cobb and east on the top end into Fulton.

The funds would also cover transportation operations and maintenance, along with microtransit, an on-demand service where people can request a curbside pickup through a mobile app.

Under the 10-year plan, estimated at $3.4 billion, the county would create five bus rapid transit routes totaling 53 miles, stretching from Kennesaw to Marietta and Cumberland, down into Mableton and along I-20, and along I-285 along the top end and heading south. This plan also includes the transportation operations and maintenance, and the microtransit program.

This map shows the proposed bus rapid transit routes under a 10-year M-SPLOST program. The board has not decided which plan to put before voters in 2024. Cobb County

Credit: Cobb County

icon to expand image

Credit: Cobb County

Both of the Republican commissioners made it clear they do not support a 30-year duration for the transit tax.

“I’ve said from the beginning, I don’t agree with anything more than 1%,” Commissioner JoAnn Birrell said. “Also, I don’t agree with a 30-year tax.”

The board is not considering any tax higher than 1%, and it did not decide Tuesday which plan to go with. The board will vote on what to place on the ballot in November 2024, after receiving public feedback on the initial proposals.

Back in 2014, then-Chairman Tim Lee failed to get his fellow commissioners to support one bus rapid transit line along Cobb Parkway from Kennesaw to Midtown in that year’s SPLOST program.

Nearly 10 years later, the new board’s Democratic majority appears ready to put the question of transit expansion to the voters, once they determine which plan to advance.

“I believe there needs to be a 30-year investment, but 10 years would take us further than a five-year SPLOST,” said Chairwoman Lisa Cupid. “I have to be open to what the possibilities are and always be willing for concession. But I also believe that we could be shooting ourselves in the foot if we don’t look at a plan that activates as many areas of the county as possible in a way that’s reliable.”

Republican Commissioner Keli Gambrill questioned why the county should invest money in a transit system if people don’t use the one they have.

“We know we have empty buses riding around the county now,” Gambrill said. “Ridership has decreased.”

But Raessler said that isn’t true. While ridership across the country declined due to the pandemic, the numbers are going up again now, he said.

“There’s times at which ridership spikes along those primary routes, and then there are times where ridership is lower,” Raessler said. “Overall, our system is well utilized.

“Increased connectivity, expansion of the system, lower headways, and more reliable, competitive trips across would bring additional ridership.”

Over the next few months, county officials and staff will begin public outreach to get feedback on the proposals to determine which one will move forward.

Some members of the community spoke out against the transit proposals during Tuesday night’s board meeting, highlighting the mounting opposition to any transit expansion in the rapidly growing county.

“We really see this tax as nothing more than a boondoggle,” said Jim Jess, who is the chairman of the Franklin Roundtable organization in Cobb. “...If it’s placed on the ballot, our organization will be working with a coalition of like-minded citizens to defeat this wasteful and unnecessary tax.”

Resident John McLean said many people in the county are already struggling to make ends meet without having to pay an additional tax.

“You just finished increasing property tax in Cobb County, and now, you’re asking us to consider a 1 or 2% SPLOST sales tax for mass transit,” he said.

Resident Kevin Cutliffe spoke in favor of expanding transit and called out the current failures of the county’s bus system.

“The majority of voters that support this project in all the districts are unable to show up and voice their support in part due to the very lack of transit that we’re trying to get in place now,” Cutliffe said. “The things we would like to see now is something every other modern community has already beaten us to.”

To learn more about the county’s proposals, watch the board’s work session presentation.