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."
However, a recent Atlanta Regional Commission traffic study predicts the transportation projects would mean an 18 percent improvement in traffic congestion for drivers heading toward the Cumberland district, with 117,000 more drivers being able to reach jobs in that area within 45 minutes, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported.
Lee, one of Cobb's leaders on the roundtable, maintains that by changing the project, it made the list stronger for the region and county. Some of the money from the $1.2 billion rail plan was reallocated to road projects, leaving $689 million for the bus line. A Cobb rail line still could be built if other funding, such as federal grants, becomes available.
Still, the backlash against Lee has been nonstop. He has been dinged on one side by all three announced candidates for his seat — which is on the same July 31 ballot — who have come out against the tax plan. His most formidable opponent, former Chairman Bill Byrne, has made Lee's support a key part of his campaign strategy. And on the other side, the Sierra Club, a proponent of transit and rail, has been critical of Cobb's change of plans on the rail line, putting it on the same side as tea party groups and other conservatives in this fight.
"I think you hear more from Cobb because of the arguments that have gone on between Lee and the activists," said Gwinnett resident Julianne Thompson, state coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots and co-organizer of the Atlanta Tea Party.
For example, in a meeting with a resident advocacy group, Lee called residents who didn't want light rail in the county "spoiled brats." Lee later apologized, and refused to talk further about the comment, but the damage was done.
Despite the opposition, Lee thinks the referendum still has a chance of passing.
"Since we have high voter turnout, overall it will play an important part of the overall vote," he said. Cobb's registered active voters are 17.3 percent of the region's 2.26 million. County turnout for the March presidential primary was 25 percent; last year's local SPLOST vote netted 11 percent turnout. "But, I believe that if it's strong in other counties, it can overcome a possible Cobb defeat."
A Rosetta Stone Communications poll conducted this week for Channel 2 Action News sampled 850 people likely to vote in the July 31 primary. The poll found voters in DeKalb and Fulton counties supported the tax 52 percent to 33 percent. But in the other eight counties, including Cobb, it was opposed by a 20-point margin. The poll, which had a 3-point margin of error, did not break out Cobb data.
A separate poll of 600 likely voters conducted for a pro-referendum group this month found that the support in the suburbs was about 52 percent.
The opponents in Cobb know that their fight isn't just about the votes of one county, but those of a region.
"We don't like the list of projects and don't think it will be the right list to solve the congestion problems," Searcy said.
Copyright 2012 - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution