Cobb County provides local and commuter bus service. But some residents want more transit options.

Cobb County’s conflicting views complicate regional transit vision

After decades of hostility to mass transit, some suburban Atlanta communities are now embracing it as a way to ease traffic congestion and boost their economies.

But Cobb County’s ambivalence to public transportation is complicating the General Assembly’s efforts to create a unified, regional transit system.

Political leaders say that, while some parts of Cobb are eager for more options for navigating metro Atlanta, the county as a whole is not.

Last week, state lawmakers tried – and failed – to reach a compromise that would allow a transit expansion in south Cobb while leaving the rest of the county alone. The measure was included in House Bill 930, one of two bills that could pave the way for the most sweeping metro Atlanta transit expansion in decades.

The compromise plan was scrapped because Cobb County’s legislative delegation couldn’t agree on the boundaries of a proposed south Cobb transportation district. HB 930 passed the House overwhelmingly, but only after the Cobb district was removed from the bill.

Transit advocates fear Cobb will be left behind as others like Gwinnett County embrace public transportation. They say Cobb needs more transit service to improve the lives of commuters and to remain economically competitive.

“It is deeply concerning that, right now, Cobb is a blank spot on the transit map,” said Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna.

But some say Cobb is doing just fine economically. They fear a regional transit system could exploit Cobb taxpayers without offering them much in return.

“Cobb County has always been concerned that they’re loved a whole lot more for their money instead of what their needs are,” Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, said during a recent hearing on transit legislation. “That has been the sticking point for almost 50 years.”

Cobb County hasn’t been alone in its suspicion of a regional transit system. Like Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton counties rejected the MARTA decades ago and later founded their own local bus services.

But explosive growth has made commuting in Atlanta miserable. And the construction of several major corporate headquarters along MARTA lines has convinced many state and local officials that transit is an important economic development tool.

In 2014, Clayton voters agreed to join MARTA. Gwinnett and Fulton plan to take transit expansion proposals to their voters.

HB 930 and Senate Bill 386 would create a regional board to coordinate transit planning and construction in 13 metro Atlanta counties. The idea is to create a seamless system that makes it easier to use public transportation across county lines.

To encourage expansion, both bills would allow local governments – with voters’ permission – to impose 1 percent sales taxes for transit construction and operations. The taxes could raise billions of dollars for transit projects over 30 years.

But the regional board would have to approve the counties’ project lists – a sticking point for those concerned about maintaining local control of taxpayers’ money. And many taxpayers – especially in Cobb – doubt the county needs to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in mass transit.

Larry Savage, a former candidate for Cobb County Commission chairman, said new traffic solutions like ride sharing and autonomous vehicles may be smarter investments.

“It would seem to me very imprudent to take off on a course of investment in something that may very soon be known as yesterday’s technology,” Savage said.

Others say the county’s bus service is inadequate.

“We want to see the best transit solutions for Cobb, not something that’s minimally staffed and paid for,” said David Stewart, who helped found a group called Transit for Cobb.

Anulewicz said her constituents want more transit.

“People in this area support transit because they understand that not having transit puts us at a critical disadvantage in economic development,” she said.

As a compromise, the House bill included a provision that would allow the County Commission to create a special transportation district in south Cobb. With voters’ permission, the district could impose a transit sales tax that would not be collected in the rest of the county.

But the boundaries of the district became a political football. “I started being told, ‘You have to take this off, you have to take that off,’” said County Commissioner Bob Ott, who drafted the district boundaries.

The district shrank and then grew. The original map covered much of the existing CobbLinc transit service area, including south Cobb and stretching up I-75 to Kennesaw State University.

Ultimately, the bill’s sponsor – Rep. Kevin Tanner, R-Dawsonville – opted to scrap the special district altogether.

County Commission Chairman Mike Boyce said it could be revived as the House and Senate negotiate the differences between their respective bills. He’d like to see something like the original map that included the existing county transit system.

If a compromise map can’t be worked out, Cobb could still hold a countywide referendum on transit expansion. But county officials doubt it would pass.

“It might be close. But my reading of the tea leaves is, I’m not sure you could get it passed countywide,” Ott said.

Tippins, who represents northwest Cobb, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the county is wrongly derided as backward in its views on transit. He said residents just want to know what specific projects are under consideration, when they’ll be completed and how much they’ll cost.

“That’s the way most people run their households,” Tippins said. “The reason Cobb has never been supportive (of transit) is the answers to those questions are not acceptable.”

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