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New tax could pay for roads

POSTED: February 2, 2009 12:08 a.m.
SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Lines of cars make go through the intersection of Spout Springs and Hog Mountain roads in Flowery Branch. State legislation would permit regions to band together to charge a 1-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects.

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Motorists have plenty of time to consider the workday as their foot switches between gas pedal and brake on Spout Springs Road.

Even with added lanes and traffic signals in past years between Hog Mountain Road and Interstate 985, the mostly two-lane road backs up a mile or more on weekday mornings.

The South Hall road is one example of how Hall County’s growth has outpaced its transportation improvements and, with the Georgia Department of Transportation in a financial crisis, future funding is cloudy.

However, area government officials and politicians are hopeful that recent activity in the General Assembly might pave the way to an eventual answer to congestion woes.

State Senate Republican leaders are pushing a bill that would permit regions, including one that would encompass 10 metro-Atlanta area counties, to band together to charge a 1-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects. Residents in the affected areas must vote to approve the tax hike.

House Republican leaders, meanwhile, are pressing to boost the sales tax by a penny across the whole state.

If the Senate plan receives an OK from state legislators, it would still need the approval of voters statewide in 2010.

The appropriate local governing body could then create a list of road and other transportation projects and would vote on whether to levy a 1-cent sales tax to fund them. If they vote “yes,” the proposal would go to Georgia voters in the region who must also endorse the tax hike.

“I am glad that positive work is being done to address transportation needs,” said Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville. “I see a concerted effort on both the Senate and the House to do something this year that is positive, that will work, not just something to feel good (about).”

Georgia and its local governments “need transportation dollars to keep up with today’s growth,” said Srikanth Yamala, transportation planning manager for the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Between 1997 and 2007, Georgia ranked fourth in population growth and 17th in job creation but second lowest on transportation, Yamala said.

Hall County needs about $165 million over the next six years to address transportation needs.
The planning organization serves as a planning arm for the Georgia DOT and has published a long-range transportation plan.

Its policy committee has recommended several projects, which have been endorsed by several agencies, including the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, Yamala said.

Improvements to Spout Springs Road and construction of the new Exit 14 interchange off I-985, also in South Hall, are on that list.

Sam Chapman, chairman of the planning organization, sent a letter representing the group to area lawmakers on Dec. 18, encouraging them to support the transportation tax.

The organization particularly pushed for the ability of counties to collect the tax by themselves, or without having to align with other counties.

“We’ve got a backlog of infrastructure in the county and ... citizens (would have) the opportunity to vote on whether they want a bunch of people to pay for it or wait and wait and wait and have to pay for it with property tax,” Chapman said.

He said he is hopeful for a constitutional amendment that will earn voters’ support.

“And if (the economy) is still tough, a county might opt not to pursue (road improvements) right away,” Chapman said. “... In the long range, that’s the best way to get project money.”

Kit Dunlap, president of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, said such a vote “is a long way to come and right now it’s not palatable to, I would say, the majority of folks because it just says tax increase.”

Still, “we all know something needs to be done about transportation and our roads, and not only our roads but some other modes of transit and rail,” she said.

At the moment, the chamber is focusing on convincing voters to approve a six-year extension of the 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax, which would pay for road, sewer, building, parks and other projects throughout the county.

The tax is supposed to go before voters on March 17. Expiring in June, the new SPLOST is expected to generate an estimated $240 million for capital improvements.

“We need to get this local SPLOST passed because it has so much positive infrastructure,” Dunlap said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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