Cobb County faces long to-do list for transit expansion

As Cobb County prepares for a possible transit expansion vote next year, it faces a long to-do list.

It must complete a transit study and settle on a list of specific projects by the end of the year. It must get approval of that project list from a new regional board in early 2019. It must decide whether to call a countywide vote or limit transit expansion to a special district.

And it must work to reconcile some thorny political differences in a county long resistant to mass transit.

VIDEO: Previous coverage on this issue

On Wednesday, Cobb County Commission and state lawmakers representing the county gathered for a briefing on a new state law that could pave the way for metro Atlanta's biggest transit-building binge in a generation.

The law, signed by Gov. Nathan Deal on May 3, allows 13 local counties to impose transit sales taxes of up to 1 percent and creates a regional board to coordinate transit planning and construction.

Voters in each county would have to approve expansion plans. Fulton and Gwinnett counties already are planning transit votes as soon as this year. Cobb County may not be far behind.

Like other counties, Cobb could hold a countywide transit. But, given Cobb’s past opposition to transit, many officials are skeptical a countywide vote would pass.

So the new law gives Cobb (and only Cobb) another option: It could create a special district in parts of the county eager for transit. Voters in the district would decide whether to tax themselves to pay for a transit. The tax would not be assessed in the rest of the county.

One catch: Under the law, if Cobb elects to create a special district, it would have to contract with MARTA to provide transit services in the district. Another catch: The county must hold a referendum on creating the district by the end of next year.

The exact boundaries of the district would be determined by next summer by the County Commission and Cobb’s state legislative delegation, which is divided over the prospect of transit expansion.

State Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna, would like to see a countywide transit expansion. But she said a special district might be a logical first step.

“Do we want to go big or go home, or do we want to do a more phased approach?” she asked.

Other lawmakers are skeptical of expanding transit.

“Every dollar spent on transit is a dollar not spent on traffic-reducing road projects,” said state Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth.

Bridging those differences won’t be easy. But the first step will be finishing the transit plan, which County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce said should be done by Christmas.

“What that (plan) looks like, I have no idea,” he said.

New Georgia transit law

House Bill 930, approved by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Nathan Deal:

  • Creates a new regional board to oversee transit funding and construction in a 13-county area.
  • Allows 13 counties to impose transit sales taxes of up to 1 percent, if their voters approve.