BRT environmental study contains errors

A key environmental study, necessary for Cobb County to qualify for a federal grant of up to $250 million, contains incorrect statements about a divisive transit project that Commission Chairman Tim Lee has been eyeing for years.

The Environmental Assessment report says Cobb commissioners were “presented the results” of a bus rapid transit analysis during a February 2012 meeting. It also says commissioners “accepted” the $500 million BRT as the county’s “locally preferred alternative” among various transit options, an important designation needed to qualify for federal funding.

In fact, no analysis had been completed when that meeting was held, no vote was taken, and commissioners made no comments whatsoever after the presentation on Connect Cobb, a plan to build bus-only lanes down U.S. 41 from Kennesaw to the Cumberland area, where SunTrust Park is located.

Critics say the designation gives the impression that there’s more support for BRT in Cobb County than exists.

“We’re obviously at the very top of this flow chart — this is the … very structured process we need to follow to do our work, to remain eligible for future federal funding under their program,” the consultant said at the Feb. 28, 2012 meeting. “The … analysis will look at a good deal data, input from stakeholders.

“At that point, we (will) select the” locally preferred alternative, she said.

The newspaper twice asked county officials to provide information about when commissioners officially adopted BRT as the locally preferred alternative. County Manager David Hankerson referred the newspaper to two meetings in September 2012, at which BRT presentations were made. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution could find no record of a vote being taken at either meeting.

Hankerson, who would only respond to AJC questions through email, also suggested that the preferred alternative will be selected later because it “continues to be refined through the Environmental Analysis.” When pressed on the issue, Hankerson had the county attorney send the newspaper a resolution passed by Cobb commissioners in 2004, which endorses bus rapid transit as a connection between I-75 and I-285 HOV lanes.

Kellie Brownlow, deputy chief in Lee’s office, said the commission accepted BRT in February 2012 “in the sense it was presented and there was no comment from” commissioners.

The issue is important because the federal government wants to know there is public support for projects it funds. Critics say the Environmental Assessment creates an impression of support that doesn’t exist. Cobb voters in 2012 roundly rejected a regional special purpose sales tax that would have funded BRT; and the project has only fractured support on the county commission.

“I absolutely think that Cobb has been exaggerating the amount of community support for BRT,” said Ron Sifen, a transit activist who opposes BRT because he thinks there are more efficient ways to address congestion along Cobb Parkway. “That is a huge problem.”

Cobb used identical language — saying BRT was “accepted” by the commission in February 2012 — last month in an application for a $10 million federal TIGER grant, which would fund half of a project that calls for bus-only lanes at a handful of U.S. 41 intersections.

The lanes, called queue-jumper lanes, would allow buses to zip around traffic at those intersections and give bus drivers the ability to control traffic signals so they don’t have to wait at red lights.

Cobb officials say the so-called Smart Corridor project described in the TIGER grant is unrelated to BRT. But key aspects of BRT are similar — dedicated bus lanes and giving bus drivers the technology to control stop lights, called “signal priority.”

In fact, the definition of BRT in that project’s Environmental Assessment says the system will “use signal priority or queue jumper lanes to increase operational efficiency and reliability.”

Brownlow called the misstatements on the TIGER grant application that the BRT was the preferred option “not materially important … on the Smart Corridor project application other than as corridor background.”

Tom Cheek disputes that.

Cheek is a West Cobb resident and frequent county government observer who last year successfully fought for major changes to the county’s Medical Examiner’s Office. He said the Smart Corridor only makes sense in the context of the larger BRT project, otherwise the buses will maneuver around the congestion at the selected intersections only to get back in traffic at the next.

He has called the Smart Corridor “a $20 million piece of BRT.”

“Language in the document seems carefully selected to make it seem like the Locally Preferred Alternative is approved by the Board of Commissioners,” Cheek said. “They are presenting this as if the LPA is the preferred option of the community, and it seems to only be the preferred option of the DOT.

“They are presenting an inaccurate history.”

The history of BRT is complicated — and confusing.

Lee vigorously supported BRT as part of the regional T-SPLOST vote and watched it defeated by Cobb voters by a two-to-one margin.

The chairman then suggested placing a $100 million line item on the 2016 local SPLOST project list that would have provided about 40 percent of the required $250 million local match to fund BRT. Lee’s fellow commissioners rejected that idea, saying they were afraid inclusion of BRT would doom the SPLOST, which will provide $750 million over six years for a variety of government operations.

As an alternative, Lee suggested removing the $100 million BRT line item and replacing it with $75 million worth of intersection improvements along U.S. 41. Those improvements would have counted toward the county’s local match for the BRT project, but were not identified as being related to BRT.

Commissioners again rejected Lee’s idea, and suspicion over 2016 SPLOST money being used for BRT led the chairman to promise a public referendum if the project moves forward.

“I just want to be clear on something,” Lee said during the commission’s July 2014 meeting, at which they voted to place the 2016 SPLOST on ballots last November. “My intent, if the board sees fit in the future to consider bringing the (BRT) project forward … it’ll be done in a public environment. It’ll be done — in my recommendation — in a separate election, to be held on its own merit.

“There’s nothing sleight of hand.”

But then last month, commissioners approved a long-range transportation plan that they thought required a referendum before BRT could be built. As the AJC reported last week, the planning document does not require a public vote. And Lee, who has refused interview request from the AJC, told the Marietta newspaper that he wasn’t sure if he would ask for a referendum.

That led to political backlash.

Commissioners Bob Ott and Lisa Cupid will introduce a resolution next month saying it is the commission’s intent to hold a referendum before building BRT; and State Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, says he may introduce local legislation next year that would require a referendum before major transit projects are built.

In a column written for the AJC and published Tuesday, Lee now says it is his intention to have a referendum if the BRT project moves forward.

“If Cobb County taxpayers are expected to foot the bill, it will be up to Cobb County taxpayers to decide via a referendum,” Lee wrote in the column. “In fact, I was the first person to suggest a voter referendum last year.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.