Cobb on verge of billion dollar ‘transit to nowhere’

By Ron Sifen

On Tuesday, the Planning Commission recognized that Cobb County has a budget crunch, and asked for further review of the Cumberland Transit Oriented Development study recommendations. That study calls for Cobb County to pay many millions of dollars toward transit and infrastructure improvements, which would provide a foundation to redevelop the Cumberland Community Improvement District into a far more densely-developed urban area.

The recommendations call for Cobb County to start spending millions of dollars on these new projects, beginning as soon as 2011.

Some citizens are questioning why Cobb is continuing to conduct (and pay for) more and more studies, calling for the County to spend more and more money, that we don’t have.

This is 2011. Cobb has a well-documented budget crisis. Cobb doesn’t have the same growth that it had on the past. The economy is still struggling to recover from the economic implosion of 2008-09. Governments throughout the country are reducing spending. Cobb County has to figure out how to stop spending.

I do not think that Cobb taxpayers should be burdened with the costs of building a transit line whose primary purpose is to spur redevelopment and will do little to improve traffic congestion in Cobb.

I am not saying never do this project. I am saying that it is not financially viable for Cobb County to begin spending millions of dollars on this project in 2011 and 2012. If the regional T-SPLOST is approved, then the regional SPLOST dollars can be spent on these projects starting in 2013 or 2014.

However, this study has additional flaws, which may turn out to be fatal.

This study is based on the assumption that light rail will be built from Acworth to Atlanta, coming down Cobb Parkway through Cumberland. I continue to question the viability of that project. If the light rail project does not get built, and if Cobb County makes these expenditures now, it will literally become Cobb’s multi-million dollar “transit to nowhere.”

Cobb has proposed $1.5 billion for the Acworth to Atlanta light rail to be included in the regional T-SPLOST. Therefore, I assume that Cobb now believes this is a $6 billion project, and they expect Washington to pay $4.5 billion, so the $1.5 billion will cover the remainder. But, austerity is already taking hold in Washington, and the 2012 elections may significantly further reduce the availability of funding for these types of projects.

Cobb will certainly succeed in getting this project onto the final projects list for the regional T-SPLOST. But, there is no guarantee that the T-SPLOST will be approved by the voters.

And even if the T-SPLOST is approved, the proposal may face delays at Federal Transit Authority, if the county’s study highlights the merits of light rail, downplays the shortcomings of light rail in this corridor, and avoids objectively evaluating more cost-effective alternatives, such as Commissioner Bob Ott’s far-less-expensive commuter rail alternative.

The light rail study will also have to resolve:

* The 1998 study identified but did not solve steep slope obstacles. That study merely noted that solving these issues would be expensive.

* The Northwest Connectivity Study a few years ago identified the challenges in achieving an efficient light rail connection to Atlanta. This was one of the crucial reasons that led the Georgia Rail Transit Authority to the conclusion that Bus Rapid Transit was the superior solution in this corridor.

* The project cannot qualify for federal funding unless it connects to MARTA. I keep hearing that Cobb County believes it can propose a hypothetical-but-unfunded eventual connection to MARTA, and expect Washington to give them money for the Acworth to Cumberland portion, and indefinitely delay the connection to Atlanta. I think this is just self-delusion.

So, spending money now to build these Cumberland transit-related improvements is really putting the cart before the horse. If Cobb doesn’t come up with a viable, affordable – and funded – light rail plan, that includes actually building the connection to MARTA, then Cobb could literally wind up spending millions for “transit to nowhere.”

Cobb County does not have the money to pay for this in 2011 and 2012.

Now is the time for Cobb County to stop spending.

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