May 23--If you go to almost any public meeting in Cobb County — no matter the topic — conversation is most likely to turn to the proposed regional transportation referendum.
And the voices you'll hear are often opponents strongly sharing their misgivings. With the county's commission chairman's race about to officially launch, the conversation is expected to get even more intense as campaign rivals attack incumbent Tim Lee's support of the transportation plan that early on included a controversial rail line in Cobb.
In July, voters from 10 counties will go to the polls to decide whether to approve a 10-year, 1 percent sales tax to pay for $6.14 billion in regional transportation projects compiled by a group of elected officials from each of the counties, known as the regional roundtable. Though Cobb isn't the largest county in the region, it has plenty of voters and plenty of sales tax dollars.
And it could have plenty of influence. Vocal Cobb opponents are working with groups in other counties and combining resources and sweat equity for a metrowide surge. Two recent polls differ on how the referendum will fare in the suburban counties.
"Cobb is one of the spokes in the wheel. They are right in the clutch of transportation issues and traffic," said Kerwin Swint, political science professor at Kennesaw State University. "Cobb is a big target of voters, and turnout here will be very important here and in Gwinnett."
And one of Cobb's core characteristics, he said, is its long-standing record of organized opposition.
Tax opponents in Cobb are known for working cooperatively and quickly to get their message out. For example, opponents, led by the Cobb Taxpayers Association, fell just 90 votes short of defeating a four-year local SPLOST increase in March 2011. And the county faced years of declining home values and tax revenue before officials dared last year to propose a tax rate hike, as other counties had already done.
"The [tax opponents in Cobb] are very vocal and they are engaged," said Swint. "They are aggressive at getting their message out."
And that's by design.
"There is a lot of activity in Cobb because we're concerned about the [transportation plan] because we don't think we will get the value out of this like other counties will," said Field Searcy, a Cobb resident and organizer with the Transportation Leadership Coalition opposition group.
The group's website, traffictruth.net, has become a focal point of the opposition movement. Site subscribers are sent emails in advance of county meetings, with a list of challenge questions to ask officials supporting the referendum in any county.
One of the major points of contention in Cobb has been a transit line that began as a light rail link running from the Cumberland area and connecting with MARTA at the Arts Center station. But that line, which would have had only about one mile located in the county in its first phase, was soundly criticized by Cobb's local and state officials. The opposition to the line hearkened back to Cobb's opposition to MARTA coming into the county decades ago as some residents feared it would bring crime into the suburbs.
"I think some of that still hangs on today," said James Hudgins, a transportation engineer and Cobb resident who is supporting the referendum. "I also think you've got more mature citizens who may be remembering back to the anti-MARTA group and since the [transportation referendum] opposition groups don't always deal in facts, it scares some people."
In both cases, the opposition is consistent, Swint said: "There seems to be an aversion to rail in the Cobb DNA."
And this time around, the furor over the rail line was so intense, Cobb's leaders on the regional roundtable changed the project to a bus line instead.
"Being taxed for 10 years for a plan that's supposed to solve traffic congestion, but is aimed at transit is not the answer," said north Cobb resident Susan Stanton. "They need to really focus on traffic congestion relief and come back in two years with a better plan."