On some weekday mornings, it takes Melissa Cole an hour and 15 minutes to travel from her home in Kennesaw to her job near Smyrna.
Over 10 years, her commute has grown by 50 minutes — and she doesn’t even leave Cobb County.
To help make that commute easier, county officials are pinning a large part of their hopes on a transit line — perhaps light rail — that could run the length of I-75 and U.S. 41, and connect with MARTA at the Arts Center Station in Atlanta.
The $1.5 billion project is the most expensive — and the most discussed — on Cobb’s wish list for next year’s transportation referendum.
As the region works to assemble one project list, suburban counties such as Cobb are facing the effects of years of rapid growth, and they are questioning whether it’s time to embrace mass transit.
However, that has to be weighed against a strong anti-tax sentiment: Cobb renewed a multipurpose local-option sales tax by just 90 votes in March.
As supporters of the referendum seek a win in the 10-county region, Cobb’s registered voters are 17.3 percent of the region’s 2.27 million, and the county is a major contributor of sales tax revenue.
Traffic studies have long acknowledged the congestion problems along I-75 and U.S. 41, but not all of the county’s lawmakers have seen transit as a viable option.
To jump-start the plan, Cobb used a $1.4 million federal grant for a light rail analysis, which it will finish with federal and local funds. “Light rail” generally operates with smaller trains at slower speeds than heavy rail services such as MARTA.
Cole, 33, who works for a transportation engineering firm, is willing to pay for a rail line.
“This would cut down on the congestion a lot. I’ve been driving that route for 10 years, and it keeps getting worse and worse and worse.”
Cobb is one of metro Atlanta’s economic engines, home to companies such as Home Depot, Lockheed Martin and WellStar Health System. But there’s concern that congested roads will dampen the hopes of enticing more businesses to the area.
The tension in Cobb on the transportation issue has been building.
Cobb’s two self-taxing commercial property districts, Cumberland and Town Center, have jump-started much of the transit planning and will support the education campaign for the transportation referendum.
Malaika Rivers, director of the Cumberland district, said that when big companies are thinking where to locate jobs these days, “They want to see tracks.”
Still, the districts have taken some heat for that support, and residents have repeatedly spoken out against the county for funding various transportation studies while it is facing financial difficulties and considering cuts to its existing county bus service.
And Cobb has long been in the middle of controversy over regional transportation. When MARTA wanted to expand decades ago, Cobb and other suburban counties kept the metro system out.
Since then, Cobb has grown dramatically, including a 13.2 percent population increase in the past 10 years. In 2010, its population stood at 688,078 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The county’s minority populations — Hispanics, in particular — have also increased over the past 10 years, and more residents live below the federal poverty level: 6.5 percent in 1999 to 9.1 percent in 2008.
Cobb’s changing demographics bode well for the referendum, said Ashley Robbins, president of the Atlanta-based public transportation advocacy group Citizens for Progressive Transit.
“From what we’re hearing, attitudes are shifting, and when you have large minority populations and larger numbers of residents who are poor or at the poverty level, there is more of a need for transit,” Robbins said.
For the referendum to pass in the county, Robbins said, having Cobb’s light rail project and some money for Cobb Community Transit buses on the final list is crucial.
Despite the traffic congestion, Kennesaw State University student Meagan Dilworth still hears the opposition to mass transit.
“I have heard that some people in the suburbs don’t want to extend MARTA into the suburbs because they fear there will be an increase in crime, which I don’t agree with,” said Dilworth, 26, who commutes to school from Powder Springs.
Cobb’s transportation director, Faye DiMassimo, said the regional look at transportation has been a long time in coming.
While not necessarily embracing MARTA expansion, county officials are proposing projects that would expand the regional transportation options, as well as improve driving conditions in the county.
Cobb’s wish list includes more than $60 million to widen Cobb Parkway (U.S. 41) to six lanes, and $236.8 million to replace CCT buses and pay for operation of the system.
The state can add projects — a public-private project to add toll lanes to I-75/I-575 in Cobb and Cherokee counties, for instance. A regional roundtable of elected officials will decide on the final list.
Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee, however, said that project should be funded by the state, not the region.
Attitudes about transit may be changing, but so has the economy, and any new taxes — especially in Cobb — will be difficult to pass.
All but one of the county commissioners have adamantly opposed raising property taxes. But with the county facing another year of declining revenue, the tax issue may be revisited.
“If you were to take a poll in Cobb today, I think the regional SPLOST would fail,” said Bill Byrne, Cobb’s commission chairman from 1992 to 2002. He is not currently on the commission, but he plans to run for chairman again next year. Right now, he’s a “no” vote on the transportation tax.
“Property values in the metro area have fallen and will continue to do so,” Byrne said.
“[Cobb commissioners] will have to come up with millions to balance the budget in the fall, and if they do it by raising the property taxes, you can kiss goodbye any chance for getting a [regional transportation tax] passed.”
Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this article.
- Incorporated: Dec. 2, 1832
- Population: 688,078
- Total area: 340.2 square miles
- County seat: Marietta
- Interstate lanes: 286.27 miles
Projects to watch
- Mass transit line from MARTA Arts Center Station to Town Center/Acworth/KSU, $1.5 billion
- Cobb Parkway at Windy Hill Road, Grade separated interchange, $110 million
- I-75 interchanges at Windy Hill and Chastain roads, interchange improvements, $161.6 million
- Windy Hill Road project: Two local lanes and four express lanes from South Cobb Drive to Cobb Parkway, $142 million
- CCT 20-year operating assistance and 140 replacement buses, $236.8 million
- McCollum Airport, new control tower, $2.5 million
- Multiuse trails for regional connectivity along Silver Comet Trail, Noonday Creek Trail, etc., $26.7 million
- Third Army Road Project: New interchange, $10 million
- Busbee Drive/Frey Road Connector, new road and bridge over I-75, $20 million
- Traffic signal project: Upgrades to signal equipment to improve mobility and reduce congestion at 700 intersections, $3.5 million
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Cities and towns submitted their wish lists in March: more than 400 projects worth up to $29 billion or more. Go to ajc.com/go/transportation to see which projects hit closest to home and which have regional effects.