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Cobb commissioners voted along party lines Tuesday to put a referendum on a long-term transit sales tax on the November general election ballot.

Voters must now decide whether to tax themselves for 30 years and raise nearly $11 billion to build a comprehensive bus system that includes restoring former routes in East Cobb that were eliminated over a decade ago.

The three Democrats on the commission voted to put the special local sales tax on the ballot, while the two Republicans voted against it.

If the one percent tax is approved, the sales tax paid in Cobb would increase from six percent to seven percent. Cobb DOT would build a countywide bus system with high-capacity routes and transfer stations, adding 108 miles.

This is how the referendum will be worded on the ballot paper in November:

The Atlanta Regional Commission estimates that Cobb’s population will reach one million by 2025.

Supporters of the tax say that relieving congestion and providing transportation options for people without cars is necessary for economic reasons and to improve the quality of life, especially for seniors and people experiencing financial difficulties.

Cobb puts transit tax referendum on November ballot
“Let’s give voters the opportunity to decide,” said Cobb Commission Chair Lisa Cupid.

Priorities include restoring a bus route through the heart of East Cobb, from Marietta and along Roswell Road to the Johnson Ferry Road area, where a transit center will be built.

Bus routes to Roswell and MARTA Dunwoody Station would connect to the East Cobb Transit Center in the Merchants Walk area, according to the project list (You can read it here).

Chairwoman Lisa Cupid called the opportunity to expand public transit in Cobb a “groundbreaking” and implored her colleagues to let residents decide their future.

“It depends on whether we recognize that the future is worth it,” said Cupid. “That the opportunity is worth it? Yes, the details are important, but the opportunity and the vision are important too.”

But Commissioner JoAnn Birrell of District 3 in East Cobb reiterated her objection to the duration of the tax, which ranges from four to six years compared to other SPLOST revenues in Cobb.

“I cannot support tying not only future committees for 30 years, but also citizens, children and grandchildren,” she said. “They will pay that price.”

Drew Raessler, director of Cobb’s Department of Transportation, explained that the 30-year term was due to the significant operating costs involved and that the longer collection period would qualify for federal funding.

To ensure “sustainable financing,” a transit program “must have this constant resource,” Raessler said.

If the tax is approved, Cobb would issue a total of $11 billion in municipal bonds to get the program started. Once the revenues come in, major routes would be upgraded and the bonds paid off. With federal funds, Cobb could spend a total of nearly $15 billion on public transit expansion.

Raessler estimated that most of this work would be completed within the first decade. Cobb could fund all mass transit with the sales tax, rather than paying for the Cobb Community Transit system out of the county’s general fund as it currently does.

beginning of the year MDJ reported that ridership across the Cobb bus system has declined from 3.7 million trips per year in 2014 to just under 1 million trips in 2022, and that the decline began long before COVID-19.

The county estimates that average public transport ridership could exceed 40,000 by 2025, just before the end of the VAT period. Currently, this figure is only around 3,000 passengers per day.

During public comment periods, citizens spoke on both sides of the issue, but most supporters addressed the board before the vote, while opponents opposed it (commissioners hold two separate public comment periods, and speakers speak in the order they register).

Jim Kerr of East Cobb, who has lived in a home near Wheeler High School for 52 years, said, “It’s time to think long-term about traffic in Cobb County.”

He said that while he would gain little from a decision to approve a sales tax on public transit, “I know that Cobb is getting older and more diverse and that’s not going to change… Not in my backyard fails to recognize that we’re all in the same boat.”

Kennesaw resident Alicia Adams said a 30-year tax creates too much uncertainty, especially for people who are currently struggling to pay their bills.

Alicia Adams of Kennesaw, who is challenging her disqualification from the Second District commission election, said she is neither for nor against the tax but expresses sympathy for residents struggling to make ends meet.

“Right now, there are a lot of families who can barely pay their rent and food,” she said. “And they’re being asked to pay extra money.”

“Do I care about the people who are not mobile? The seniors? Yes, I care,” she said. “But we have to do it in a way that is not invasive.”

“Are we prepared to expose our children and our future to uncertainty for 30 years?”

Cobb Department of Transportation officials will soon be holding informational and “educational” meetings for the public ahead of the referendum, and a ridership survey must also be conducted before the vote, as mandated by ATL, the Atlanta-Region Transit Link Authority.

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