GA: Transit Advisory Board Endorses Holding Sales Tax Referendum

June 10, 2024
If approved by voters, Cobb would use the 30-year, 1% sales tax to transform its public transportation system.

MARIETTA — An appointed board which advises county commissioners on the operation of Cobb’s transit system voted 6-3 this week to endorse moving forward with a 30-year penny sales tax referendum to fund transit.

Cobb’s Transit Advisory Board adopted a resolution encouraging the Board of Commissioners to hold the countywide referendum, which is slated to be on the Nov. 5 general election ballot.

If approved by voters, Cobb would use the 30-year, 1% sales tax to transform its public transportation system. Known officially as the Mobility Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (M-SPLOST), the transit tax would collect $11 billion to construct 108 miles of rapid bus routes, half a dozen new transit centers and a countywide system of on-demand "microtransit" service.

Approval by voters would raise the county’s sales tax from 6% to 7%.

The board’s resolution was adopted the day before the Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority, a state oversight agency, voted unanimously to approve the M-SPLOST project list. The state authority’s seal of approval was one of the final legal hurdles for the referendum — next Tuesday, the Cobb Board of Commissioners will vote on officially placing the tax on the ballot.

Wednesday’s vote by the Transit Advisory Board came after an hour or so of debate by board members, who regularly monitor the state of the county’s existing CobbLinc bus system.

The resolution cites Cobb’s growing population, increased strain on infrastructure and the need to provide “all segments of the population access to economic opportunity and prosperity,” before recommending that commissioners hold the referendum.

Cobb’s Transit Advisory Board

Chairwoman Lisa Cupid’s appointees

* Matthew Stigall

* Lasandra Boykin

* Dr. Jaha Howard

Commissioner Keli Gambrill’s appointees

* Forrest Shealy

* Mark Riggans

* Kenneth W. Marlin

Commissioner Jerica Richardson’s appointees

* Walter Kolis

* Connor Manthey

* John Noe

Commissioner JoAnn Birrell’s appointees

* Jeff Souther

* Thomas Shibley

* Cheri Newton

Commissioner Monique Sheffield’s appointees

* James Darden

* Allison Bickers

* (Third appointment vacant)

The advisory board’s resolution was supported by board members Matt Stigall, Ken Marlin, Connor Manthey, Walter Kolis, Thomas Shibley and Allison Bickers.

“This is an imperfect project list,” Bickers said. “But I don't want to let perfection get in the way of progress.”

It was opposed by board members Forrest Shealy, Jeff Souther and James Darden.

“We are recommending a referendum on a poor project list, on too much money, for too long, with no data to support it,” Shealy said. “That's going to fail.”

Six of the board's 14 members were absent, including Dr. Jaha Howard, who is running for a seat on the Board of Commissioners.


Bickers was one of many board members who had qualms with the projects selected for the transit tax.

Shealy called it “strategically misaligned” for not including rail, nor tying into MARTA.

For his part, Souther objects to the lack of connection to Paulding County, and the single local bus route which would go to Cherokee County.

Without addressing regional growth, he said, “all we're going to do is take some Cobb County citizens’ cars off the road, and then they're going to be filled with citizens from other counties traveling through.”

Marlin said he wished the projects provided easier access to Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and would have preferred a 10-year tax.

“However, coming from a competitive environment and corporate environment … I don't want to see us fall behind.”

Stigall, though, noted the projects will also fund road improvements, as well as pedestrian and “This isn't just transit. This is a comprehensive mobility option,” Stigall said.

Some supportive board members said they were worried about losing more time. Even if the voters reject the tax, Cobb will have learned valuable lessons and can go back to the drawing board. The time is ripe to put something, even if it’s not perfect, to a countywide vote, they said.

“If we don't, then we're going to be waiting two more years, and then we're going to go through the same exact process,” Kolis said. “… If not now, when?”

The added tax burden on consumers was cited by people who voted against the resolution.

Souther said it was not wise to seek a tax increase amid rising property tax assessments, rents and an overall inflationary economy.

“It's just a bad time to be asking for a tax increase,” Souther said.

Manthey said the county will pay the price one way or another. Not building transit, and the impact on roads, could cost as much as building transit will.

“We already have that burden right now for our roads. And if we continue to expand and add lanes, and that's our only option to get around, that burden continues to grow,” Manthey said.

Darden felt the tax was too much, and too long. Over his years on the board, he said he’s “constantly asked … why can't we do a five-year, 10-year plan, and see where that goes, instead of trying to do a 30-year tax?”

Bickers said state lawmakers allow counties to pass a 30-year tax for a reason — it takes a long time to overhaul a transit system and do it right. Plus, the dedicated funding stream will make Cobb more competitive when seeking federal grants.

“The suburban land use model, which we currently have in Cobb County, is the most tax-intensive land use model there is,” she said. “It costs more tax dollars per person to live in a suburban environment. And so this allows us to respond more wisely with our tax dollars.”

A common refrain of M-SPLOST opponents is that low ridership on CobbLinc proves there is little appetite for more buses.

As the MDJ previously reported, ridership on Cobb’s existing CobbLinc bus system declined by 73% from 2013 to 2022, going from 3.7 million annual trips to just shy of 1 million annual trips.

Cobb estimates that by 2050 — 25 years into the 30-year tax — there will be an average of 40,600 rides on weekdays.

If that turns out to be accurate, it would represent a more than twelvefold increase over the 2022 average of 3,180 trips per weekday.

“I do think that given the ridership of Cobb transit over the past four years, that we have to have data to support such a move,” Shealy said. “… Ridership has fallen to about 40% of what it was in 2019, when the ridership was considered marginal. … We keep saying it's going to recover from COVID, we haven't seen that yet.”

Stigall said the ridership was partially due, however, to poor service. CobbLinc as constituted now can’t compete with cars, he said, because it’s underfunded.

“As someone who would love to get around this county, without using a car, I currently cannot,” Stigall said.

Two citizens, Donald Barth and Tracy Stevenson, criticized the transit tax proposal during public comment.

“There's nothing this board can say or do to justify having a 30-year, one-cent sales tax,” Barth said. “... If the board was thinking with clear mind, the board could come out and propose a 10-year M-SPLOST.”

Stevenson called it “the biggest boondoggle in the history of Cobb County.”

“You're dreaming if you think people are going to love a bus system, and they're going to ride buses everywhere,” Stevenson said. “It's just not going to happen. People love their independence. People live in suburbia so that they don't live in urbia.”

Tuesday vote looms

The M-SPLOST is being spearheaded by Cobb Chairwoman Lisa Cupid with the support of the other Democrats on the board, Commissioners Jerica Richardson and Monique Sheffield. Republican Commissioners Keli Gambrill and JoAnn Birrell have sought to prevent the referendum from being placed on the ballot, but been outvoted.

Next week, commissioners are set to vote on officially calling the referendum. The Cobb Board of Commissioners will meet Tuesday at 9 a.m. at 100 Cherokee Street.


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