May 28—EAST COBB — Warren Ballew lived for a year in England, where a park was always a 15-minute walk away. Here, he had to drive the short distance from his home to East Cobb Park, where he told county officials future investment in the Cobb's transportation system should bring us a little closer to our neighbor across the pond.
The seventh and final town hall detailing the county's long-term transportation plan, hosted by east Cobb Commissioner Jerica Richardson, drew a handful of passionate residents. The plan will be used to inform the county's governing board as it prepares a list of projects to be funded by a new sales tax voters will be asked to approve in November 2022.
Some had come Thursday to oppose new taxes and creeping urbanization in what was once farmland. One had come to ask for electric car charging stations and a MARTA train running between Interstate 75's north- and south-bound lanes. Ballew wanted a sizable expansion of the county's trail network.
When Christina Pastore of Kimley-Horn, a consultancy the county has hired to help craft the plan, asked attendees how many of them were familiar with it, most raised their hands.
"We don't have a lot of rookies in the space here today," she said.
Few county residents will be as interested in the nitty-gritty of different modes of transit or bothered by a 1% sales tax. And yet they will, in all likelihood, be asked to approve such a tax — which could be more or less than 1% — and finance a bevy of transportation projects.
Although recent town halls have been billed, in part, as an opportunity for residents to make their voices heard on county transportation priorities, they are not the only — or even primary — way the county will conduct its "public input" portion of the plan.
Two surveys will be conducted: One available online until early June that anyone can complete at his or her leisure, and a "scientific" phone survey meant to reach a representative group of Cobb Countians.
Those surveys will, in theory, show Cobb commissioners what their constituents really want. Whether they are, in fact, representative remains to be seen, Richardson said after the town hall Thursday.
As was the case at her town hall, constituents who have called and emailed to talk about the long-term transportation plan are not exactly the average citizen, she continued.
"You kind of hear from the same kind of advocates," she said. "There are a lot of people that have been hyper-interested in transportation in the county for several years, so every time it is time to have that conversation, they're certainly ready and available to provide their insight."
Richardson plans on hosting this summer a series of community meetings she has dubbed "mobility summits."
In January, Richardson said she thinks her community could support a 1% tax, but would like to come up with proposals funded by a cent-and-a-half, to show constituents what's possible and determine what appetite, if any, they may have for a more ambitious initiative.
Presentations at recent town halls have shown county residents what they could have if they were to approve a 2% sales tax, half of which would go toward transit and half of which would fund roads, trails and sidewalks.
Before the town hall began, area resident Mike Holzknecht, who is active in the Cobb Democratic Party, approached an MDJ reporter unbidden to complain about the lack of electric car charging stations in the county. When officials took questions after their presentation, he asked about the charging stations and bringing rail into Cobb.
Area resident John Morgan asked whether they had considered repurposing freight rail lines in the county.
"Atlanta has a history as a rail town. I mean our first name was what, Terminus?" he said.
Pastore, the consultant, said it was a worthwhile discussion that needed to happen at a regional level.
"Cobb really can't do commuter rail just by itself," she said. "We aren't including commuter rail in this, not because we don't think it should happen, but we think it needs to happen at a much higher regional and state level, and if there's an opportunity to move some of these ideas forward, we think Cobb should engage in that conversation."
After the town hall ended, Morgan said the enormous cost of new "heavy rail" in the mold of MARTA's trains led him to look for cheaper options.
Additionally, he wants the county to invest in new signal technology that will improve the flow of traffic. When asked whether he would support an additional 2% sales tax on top of the 6% Cobb residents already pay, he said the county wouldn't need that much to fund the projects he was most excited about.
"I don't think we'd need even 8 (percent)," he said. "I think 7, 6-and-a-half (percent)."
Cobb is one of 13 counties in the metro area that can impose a 1%, 30-year sales tax for transit — think buses and trains — under House Bill 930, which became law in 2018. It can also impose an additional 1%, five-year sales tax for transportation projects — think new roads, trails and sidewalks — under HB 170, which passed in 2015. Both taxes can be less than a penny, or "fractional," and can run for fewer than 30 and five years, respectively.
Currently Cobb's sales tax is 6%: 4% goes to the state, 1% goes to the county's special purpose local option sales tax and the final penny is for an education SPLOST collected by the Cobb and Marietta school districts.
Hill Wright, a regular at meetings of the county's governing board, said there was a lot of focus on getting people to Atlanta rather than populations of the future such as Alpharetta and Cherokee County.
"It seems to me we need solutions that are flexible, so that we don't build the system of the past to serve past needs when the future needs may change," he said.
Ed Finnegan, one of Richardson's three new appointees to the county's Transit Advisory Board and a former Georgia fleet director, said he and the other new appointees weren't much different from other county residents in that they had a lot to learn.
Among the biggest questions that remain: what exactly is the purpose of the county's long-term transportation plan?
"Are we looking to move people to Atlanta, or are we looking to better move people through Cobb County? And both of those have value."