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Eyes on the Road: Sales tax has heated views on either side
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With Georgia’s historic transportation vote on Tuesday, I paused this week to reflect on months and months of reporting on this important, yet frequently divisive issue.

Every chance I’ve gotten, I’ve asked folks for their opinions on the question of whether to add a penny per dollar for new and improved roads.

A simple “Do you support or oppose the tax?” will ignite a 15-minute conversation.

And sometimes I haven’t had to ask, instead just watching and taking notes as residents cut loose at four public hearings sponsored by the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization.

And sometimes, in a setting that has nothing to do with transportation, the topic just comes up, sparked by the comment of someone I’m standing next to or the group I’m in.

Simply put, the issue has struck a nerve with many residents.

I haven’t done a formal tally or anything near scientific, but it seems to me in all my travels and interviews — or as a wallflower at a public hearing — that adding the penny tax hasn’t gained a whole lot of traction among average, everyday residents.

Residents have decried it for many reasons.

They say the economy is too weak to handle a tax increase of any kind, let alone something that affects everyday consumer goods, such as food and clothing.

They say the state needs to do better with the money that it has, and until it does, don’t go asking the public for more.

Residents in small counties, such as Hart, say they don’t like the fact that it doesn’t matter how they vote, that the issue will be decided in the bigger counties of Hall and Forsyth.

Earlier this year, a photographer and I logged some 1,000 miles in 13 counties spanning the Georgia Mountains region to look at and report on all the projects officials have said would get attention if the sales tax passes Tuesday.

And the opinions were as diverse as the scenery, with its rich mixture of hills, valleys and curves.

Many didn’t know anything about the sales tax — maybe that’s changed in the months since our reporting — but they were familiar with the road projects, some that have been on the books for years.

Some said they supported the tax to help improve roads and boost the local economy.

But, in an ironic twist, some residents feared that businesses — the very entity that would help raise the needed sales tax money — would be harmed by the projects themselves.

In the words of Les Henderson, a Rabun County businessman: “They want to get the traffic through, but when you get (motorists) speeded up, it’s hard to get them to come in and shop.”

On the other hand, the sales tax has vast support among those in the business community. The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce has thrown its support behind the tax.

Kit Dunlap, its president/CEO, hasn’t been shy about asking people and audiences to vote for the tax.

Supporters have said the sales tax would be put to good use: improving safety and traffic congestion and putting in place vital transportation networks.

They point to South Hall around the Northeast Georgia Health System’s River Place complex and an interchange between Flowery Branch and Oakwood that, officials say, would help shore up industrial development.

Proponents also say the sales tax’s failure means reliance on a declining gas taxes to take of future transportation needs.

Here is one certainty in the heated debate: For those who have voiced an opinion either way, Tuesday is the day to flex your civic muscle.

Polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

Jeff Gill covers transportation issues for The Times. Share your thoughts, news tips and questions with him:

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