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Even If Cobb Votes To Fund Transit In 2019, MARTA Rail Is Unlikely To Follow

With the prospect of Cobb County continuing to lose out on more than a third of the region's economic development deals, leaders are looking to add a penny sales tax that could fund the massive expansion of a transit alternative. One thing is very likely: MARTA will not be that alternative.

MARTA heavy rail at the North Avenue Station in Atlanta.

“Heavy rail is simply not affordable,” Cumberland Community Improvement District Executive Director Tad Leithead said during Thursday's Bisnow Future of Cumberland event at the Atlanta Marriott Northwest at Galleria.

Transit and transportation were top of mind among the panelists, including Atlanta Braves President Mike Plant, Childress Klein partner Connie Engel and Hamilton Zanze & Co. founder Tony Zanze among the local stakeholders. Panelists touched upon the changing habits of office workers, including more walking and even fishing thanks to the Chattahoochee River.

“We have people leave their office buildings and instead of going to lunch, they go trout fishing for an hour,” Leithead said.

But how the Cumberland/Galleria area would address congestion and mobility was the biggest topic of discussion during the event. 

Gov. Nathan Deal recently signed a bill that creates a regional transit authority called Atlanta-region Transit Link Authority — known as The ATL — to plan and coordinate transit projects in a 13-county region that includes Cobb, Gwinnett, Forsyth, DeKalb and Fulton counties.

The law also provides a mechanism for counties to hold referendums that will seek to levy a penny sales tax specifically to fund transit and transportation projects. If Cobb voters agree to a penny sales tax increase, that could boost county coffers by $150M a year for transit planning, Leithead said.

Building heavy rail costs around $250M to $300M per mile, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution report. That will likely put the kibosh on expanding MARTA rail directly into Cobb, Leithead said.

While Leithead is not an ultimate decision-maker for what projects Cobb could consider if a sales tax passes as the Cumberland CID head, he will have a seat at that table.

“It's just unlikely that we're going to pursue heavy rail,” Leithead told Bisnow after his panel discussion. "I'm not seeing that that makes any sense for Cobb."

Cushman & Wakefield Senior Director Chad Koenig, Atlanta Braves President Mike Plant and Cumberland CID Executive Director Tad Leithead

Calls for some form of mass transit system, one that coordinates with MARTA and other future regional networks, have been growing in Cobb in recent years, particularly for the denser, southern end of the county that is closer to Atlanta, the AJC reported.

The law just passed in the state can allow for just a subset of Cobb to create a special taxing district if the entire county does not go along, but it would generate far less money. Leithead and other panelists said the shift in attitudes in Cobb gives them the opportunity to push for some form of mass transit programs.

If not MARTA, Leithead said he envisions a mix of projects that could include rapid bus transit, flex buses and light rail in coordination with The ATL agency.

As for the Cumberland CID, Leithead said the members are gathering soon to evaluate what future infrastructure projects it may look to fund, things like pedestrian bridges that would span over Interstate 75 or across Cobb Parkway or even across the Chattahoochee River; all methods for people to travel around the Cumberland submarket without using a car, he said.

The lack of viable mass transit in Cobb has had an economic toll on the county. Leithead said 45% of economic development prospects redline the county due to few transit options. That included the Mercedes-Benz headquarters and the regional State Farm hub, two monster development projects that landed in Central Perimeter. Officials will be pushing for a vote on the penny sales tax in 2019.

“If the referendum doesn't pass, then we missed [addressing mass transit] for another 40 years,” Leithead said. “We're going to be talking about autonomous vehicles. We're going to be talking about how we access transit. We're going to have to continue to do that in order to maintain a competitive advantage.”