In the shadow of last year’s failed transportation sales tax referendum, Cobb County is trying a new approach to determine the future transit needs of the state’s third-largest county: asking taxpayers to help make the list.
Like other metro counties, Cobb is trying to figure out which transportation projects are a priority and how they will be funded without the special tax. Cobb is looking for answers through the update of its multibillion-dollar comprehensive transportation plan, the blueprint for car, bike, pedestrian, train and transit improvements over the next 25 years.
In the past, county officials, engineers and experts developed the project list and later asked taxpayers for reaction. This time, Cobb leaders are reversing that approach in a strategic move to harvest local support after last year’s 2-to-1 rejection of the proposed regional transportation tax.
It’s a smart strategy, say supporters and opponents of the T-SPLOST, for counties looking to exorcise the ghost of the failed referendum.
“I like this approach a lot better, as long as it’s truly about getting our input,” said T-SPLOST opponent J.D. Van Brink, chairman of the Georgia Tea Party and a Cobb resident.
The T-SPLOST list of projects was negotiated by 21 mayors and county commissioners from all 10 counties affected, and it contained about half transit and half roads. About 270,000 residents were reached through telephone town hall meetings, online chats, forums, and social media outreach, but many voters still said they felt their voice didn’t count.
Cobb County is paying consulting group ARCADIS $1.4 million to help update the transportation plan, which is used to help create regional transportation plans and obtain state and federal funding. Almost a quarter of that money — $300,000 — will go toward the public outreach effort, including meetings, website and printing materials, county officials said. Commissioners will vote on the updates in fall 2014.
Faye DiMassimo, director of the Cobb Department of Transportation, said the county is going to try to reach its 700,000-plus residents and business owners in a variety of ways, from traditional public hearings to telephone town hall meetings. An online survey is available now at cobbdot.org.
“I think people’s appetite to finance anything with public dollars that doesn’t demonstrate a real return on investment is very low,” DiMassimo said. “We’ve got to engage with folks at a grass-roots level — talk to people on the street. We want to make sure everything we bring forward is going to add real value economically and from a community perspective.”
The median commute time for Cobb residents is about 30 minutes — average for the metro area — but Cobb residents typically drive a shorter distance to work than other metro residents, according to data from the Atlanta Regional Commission. One of county’s biggest issues is interstate congestion, especially on I-75. County forecasts show those problems will worsen in the next 25 years if not addressed.
With the sharp decline in state and federal funding for transportation, Cobb will likely be relying more on local tax dollars to fund future improvements. Cobb County Chairman Tim Lee said how to pay for future projects, whether through property tax, a penny sales tax or bonds, will be a critical part of the community conversation.
“We’re having a conversation as to what projects are important to Cobb County and what’s the best way to fund them. So when we get that item in fall 2014, it’s already a plan that’s got support and we can move forward,” said Lee, who helped design the T-SPLOST and faced blistering attacks during the debate on it.
DeKalb has been working on updates to its transportation plan since October and plans to have changes completed by April 2014. A spokesman for the county said DeKalb has long taken a public-input-first approach and that hasn’t changed as a result of the T-SPLOST.
Gwinnett is not working on updates to its plan, which was last adopted in February 2009. Seventy-one percent of Gwinnett voters rejected the T-SPLOST, and now the county is gearing up for renewal of its local penny sales tax, which is up for a vote Nov. 5 and is focused heavily on transportation.
In Cobb, 69 percent of voters struck down the 1 percent regional sales tax, which supporters said was critical for the region’s future. A 2012 poll conducted for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that distrust of government is likely the primary reason the T-SPLOST failed. Others say it’s because voters didn’t want to pay a new tax in a down economy. And some say it was because of the list of projects and the lack of public input during the campaign.
Sam Massell, a former Atlanta mayor and president of the Buckhead Coalition, a nonprofit civic group that supported the T-SPLOST, said the referendum was too heavily driven by the business community and didn’t rely enough on support from politicians or the public. He said Cobb is “right on target” with its community-driven approach.
“You have to get to the point where everyone is benefiting — it can’t just be the people in ivory towers saying ‘Yes, this is good for you,’ ” he said.
Longtime Cobb resident Ron Sifen is optimistic about the county’s approach, but still a bit skeptical. Sifen is the president of the Cobb County Civic Coalition and a longtime community advocate who serves on several transportation advisory boards. At one time he supported the T-SPLOST, but he changed his mind, believing the project list benefited special-interest groups more than taxpayers.
He hopes this time, everyone is listened to equally.
“Cobb County is giving us this opportunity, and it is the responsibility for taxpayers — regular people — to participate,” he said. “If they don’t, they’re not going to like what they end up with.”
Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this story.
How to give your input:
Cobb will be holding public meetings and telephone town halls over the next several months, but no dates have been set. An online survey is available now at cobbdot.org.
May 2013 - Oct. 2013: County to hold listening tour, take public opinion polls, and launch communication campaign.
Oct. 2013 - March 2014: County to launch website and social media outreach and hold public meetings
March 2014 - Sept. 2014: More public meetings, public opinion polls and online surveys. Final project recommendations go before commissioners for a vote in the fall.