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Ex-Hall roads leader now has transportation tax in his sights
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Todd Long serves as the director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

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Todd Long talks about his job as director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

ATLANTA — Todd Long’s professional road led from Hall County to Atlanta, where he now helps plan for Georgia’s future transportation needs.

And that means he spends a lot of time away from his Georgia Department of Transportation office 22 floors above traffic at the One Georgia Center in Atlanta.

“I feel like I probably know the state as well as just about anybody,” said Long, former district engineer based in Gainesville. “I’ve been on about every state route in this state, and I think I sort of know where the needs are. (The traveling) has helped me do my job better.”

He has kept a busy schedule lately, including a recent visit to Hall, as he talks to local government officials about the state’s new, voter-driven 1-cent tax for transportation.

It’s a hot topic among many elected officials and one where Long sits in the epicenter. His job calls for him to shepherd governments as they go through the process of identifying projects that would fall under the tax.

But as he told officials in a Sept. 14 meeting at Oakwood City Hall, “I’m not here to tell you to get behind the (law). That’s ultimately up to you.

“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.”

Making a career out of the DOT wasn’t originally in the cards for Long, 43, after he left Georgia Tech 20 years ago with degrees in civil engineering.

The Hinesville native thought he would complete a two-year training program, then “go off to a consulting firm or somewhere else,” he said. “But I liked it so much, I stayed.”

Long eventually would wind up the Gainesville office at the corner of Athens and Gillsville highways, spending nine years there — two as district engineer.

He left to take a job with the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority a couple of years ago.

Later, the General Assembly approved the job he now holds, director of planning, that reports directly to the governor.

While at GRTA, Long got the call from Gov. Sonny Perdue to serve in the post.

“The executive branch, through the history of this department, has really had no official input into the (DOT),” Long said.

“So this (legislative action) was really the first effort made to get the executive branch (to have) kind of a say within the department.”

He’s a DOT employee, but works at the pleasure of the governor, responsible for short-term and long-term planning functions.

“Final approval still comes from the governor and the DOT board,” Long said. “My job is to make sure we prepare all that for approvals.”

This year, the General Assembly approved the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which 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 central idea is that “if you invest in infrastructure, good things will happen to your state,” Long said. “You’ll have an increase in jobs and your (gross domestic product) will go up.”

The law has been a touchy issue at several Hall County meetings. One concern has been that smaller counties could “hold hostage” larger counties by threatening not to approve any projects if they can’t get what they want.

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

“Hall County has probably been a little more vocal about the law than most counties,” Long said. “We’re getting very positive responses out of all of our rural counties.”

More urban counties have had trouble looking beyond their boundaries.

“We’re trying to get them to look beyond that,” Long said. “What’s good for the region is also good for the county. What’s good for the region is also good for the state.”

Long isn’t concerned yet about whether the tax will pass and said he realizes “there’ll be parts of the state that don’t want to tax themselves, that think transportation is not a big issue for them.”

“We’ve got time. We’re in the process of educating public officials first,” he said.

The time will come later to have a “huge effort to educate the public of the need for (the tax),” he said.

At the Oakwood meeting, 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,” he said. “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.”

Long was referring to the state’s sole transportation main funding source, gas taxes.

He said he also knows the tax wouldn’t have much of a shot of passing if a vote were held this year, with the economic downturn affecting so many residents.

“Let’s hope and pray the economy comes back, not just for this law, but for all of us,” Long said.

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