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DOT says options not good if transportation tax fails
Todd Long, Georgia Department of Transportation planning director, addresses a group of officials Tuesday during a meeting at Oakwood City Hall about the Transportation Investment Act of 2010. - photo by SARA GUEVARA


Todd Long, planning director for the Georgia Department of Transportation, talks about the state’s plans for the 1-cent sales tax for transportation.

On the air

Stephanie Carter, special assistant to the commissioner for policy and projects at the Georgia Department of Transportation, will discuss the proposed 1-cent transportation tax and other transportation issues as a guest on The Local Hour, co-hosted by Executive Editor Mitch Clarke and WDUN’s Katie Highsmith. Listen live at 9 a.m. today on WDUN 550-AM.

OAKWOOD ­- Todd Long asked and answered the question in the same breath.

"Why in the world are we here today talking about a funding bill? We'll, it's because were broke," said the planning director for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

"The bottom line is, over the last 20 years or so, Georgia has not stayed up with investing in transportation like we needed to."

After setting up the grim situation, Long lauded the state's new, voter-driven 1-cent tax for transportation as the financial answer for the state's transportation woes.

"Guys, this is all we have," Long told a crowd of city and Hall County leaders at Oakwood City Hall Tuesday.

"If this does not pass, the only pot we're going to have
is that old pot that is shrinking every year ... that's going to drag projects out for years," he said, referring to the state's sole transportation main funding source, gas taxes.

"You've seen it right here in Hall County. We've got some good projects in Hall County, (ones) built in the last 10 years. But the next 10 years are looking pretty dry. This sales tax gives us an opportunity to move forward and do something positive."

The Transportation Investment Act of 2010 allows voters within established districts throughout Georgia to decide whether to add the sales tax to pay for transportation and transit improvements, from new roads to maintenance and operation.

Two representatives from each of the 13 counties, including Hall, in the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission now must form a regional transportation roundtable.

To proceed toward a 2012 vote on the tax, that group must hold its first meeting after Nov. 15 and decide on a final project list by Oct. 15, 2011.

The state would distribute tax proceeds in 2013, with 75 percent of the money dedicated to regional projects decided on by the roundtable ­- with Long's guidance - and 25 percent going to local governments using their discretion on projects.

The law has been a hot topic among area government leaders since coming out of the General Assembly earlier this year. It has been roundly criticized at public meetings.

"If we bad-mouth the (law) and kill this thing in this
region, then you're going to be working off that old (funding source) for years to come," said Long, a former Hall County resident and top engineer for the Gainesville-based District 1.

"It's not going to be a pretty picture."

Long went on to tell officials that his job is to educate local governments and the public about the law.

"I'm not here to tell you to get behind the (law). That's ultimately up to you," he said. "You've just got to understand ... the dynamics of the bill enough to realize that if you work together, you can probably make this work."

Long said that negative forces have been at work in Hall County.

"This is my county I lived in for six years ... and I've seen some negative statements that were totally untrue," he said. "After you end the day, you can have opinions about the (law)."

Concerns about the law surfaced during the meeting with Long.

"What would stop the 11 other members from holding Hall and Forsyth County hostage by saying, ‘OK, we're not going to let you approve any of these projects unless we get X number of dollars'?" said Gary Anderson, an Oakwood city councilman who has been vocal about the law.

"If they want to hold you hostage - the way the law is structured - they could," Long said. "The (law) would be an utter failure if that happens because the voters don't live (in the smaller counties)."

He said he believes the reverse will happen in that small, cash-starved counties will want to seek alliances with larger counties.

"They want (the tax) to pass and ... they're not going to start demanding they get X number of the regional dollars," Long said.

Oakwood Mayor Lamar Scroggs said he believes the real sales pitch is going to have to be made to voters who are thinking "a tax increase is a tax increase."

He said he talked recently to a man who said "we Republicans" don't want a tax increase.

"I said, ‘What's this got to do with Republicans or Democrats? It's got to do with fixing our roads. ... Let's don't get the parties involved in this thing.'"