File photo: Northwest Corridor Express Lanes head southbound. Traffic has repeatedly topped Cobb residents’ list of biggest problems facing the county. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Cobb County seeks extension on special transit district vote

Cobb County is seeking more time to sort out its transit and transportation plans under the umbrella of the new regional transit authority, The ATL.

But some fear the delay could increase costs and send a negative message about Cobb’s priorities.

When former Gov. Nathan Deal signed last year’s sweeping regional transit bill into law, it included a carve-out allowing Cobb County to draw a special service district for transit—as long as the referendum was held by November 2019.

The carve-out was a compromise between two factions that make up the Cobb County legislative delegation: Those who want transit expansion linking Cobb to Atlanta, and skeptics who question the cost and effectiveness of such expansion.

Although local officials say they have not decided whether to create a special district or hold a county-wide referendum on a transit sales tax to support new infrastructure, most seem to agree that the vote can’t be held before 2021.

They say they need time to compile a list of projects that can convince voters to back a new tax. And they fear placing the referendum on the same 2020 ballot with another sales tax.

East Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott said it was “too early to tell” whether the county would seek a special district for transit or take it county-wide. He said some key lawmakers were aware of the county’s impending request and were discussing it.

“In order to have everything on the table, the county needs the extension,” Ott said. “I really don’t have an opinion one way or the other yet.”

Powder Springs Mayor Al Thurman, who favors transit expansion and sits on the county’s advisory board, said he’s concerned about Cobb falling behind other counties, like Gwinnett, that have moved more aggressively on transit expansion. Missing the 2020 election also means passing up the high voter turnout of a presidential election year, which a recent survey showed would likely bolster transit initiatives among young, more affluent but less engaged voters.

In the end, however, Thurman said that voters won’t support a new tax without knowing exactly how it will benefit them.

“It depends on the project list and what comes out of that, obviously, is going to really make a difference,” he said. “The longer we wait the more it’s going to cost.”

Chairman Mike Boyce said he has been clear since the bill was signed into law that the time frame was unrealistic. He said he was not concerned that waiting to hold the vote would hurt Cobb, pointing to several companies that announced they were relocating to Cobb or expanding there over the past year.

“It’s important for the business community to understand that we are not ignoring this issue,” said Boyce. “There is a way to do things in Cobb County and get them successfully to pass. If you push the voters in this county into a corner and don’t give them the time to fully become part of the process … they will vote it down.”

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