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Regional leaders gear up for meeting on transportation
Officials must propose list of road projects to be funded by possible sales tax
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Transportation group

Members of Northeast Georgia's transportation roundtable, featuring the top elected official for each county government and one mayor as selected by other mayors in that county

Banks: Milton Dalton, county representative; Jerry Neace of Baldwin, city representative

Dawson: Mike Berg, county representative; Joe Lane Cox of Dawsonville, city representative

Forsyth: Charles Laughinghouse, county representative; Ford Gravitt of Cumming, city representative

Franklin: Sam Elrod, county representative; Harris Little of Carnesville, city representative

Habersham: Doug Vermilya, county representative; Margaret Ballard of Cornelia, city representative

Hall: Tom Oliver, county representative; Ruth Bruner of Gainesville, city representative

Hart: Joey Dorsey, county representative; David Jordan of Royston, city representative

Lumpkin: John Raber, county representative; Gary McCullough of Dahlonega, city representative

Rabun: Virgil Kilby, county representative; Bill Robinson of Dillard, city representative

Stephens: Dean Scarborough, county representative; Bob Troup of Toccoa, city representative

Towns: Bill Kendall, county representative; Barbara Mathis of Hiawassee, city representative

Union: Lamar Parris, county representative; Jim Conley of Blairsville, city representative

White: Travis Turner, county representative; Mully Ash of Helen, city representative

Source: Georgia Mountains Regional Commission

Northeast Georgia is on the road toward a 2012 statewide vote on a 1-cent tax for transportation.

A 26-member group of city and county elected officials has been put together and is set for its first meeting at 5 p.m. Jan. 5 in downtown Dahlonega, said Danny Lewis, executive director for the Gainesville-based Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.

Todd Long, former district engineer based in Gainesville and now the Georgia
Department of Transportation's planning director, plans to run the meeting with the help of a consultant group, Lewis said.

"I'm really excited about (the meeting). I think it's going to be a great meeting and I'm so glad we're a part of it," he said.

The steps ahead will "give counties and regions an opportunity to decide whether they want more money coming in the region for transportation purposes," said Lewis, president of all the regional commissions in Georgia. "Quite frankly, DOT money is drying up - that's what we're seeing everywhere we go.

"If we're going to have a chance for our cities and counties to survive in the future, they've got to step out on faith and do some of their own work," Lewis said. "This may not be a perfect plan ... but it's the best thing we've got going right now."

A transportation tax has long been a hot legislative issue, with the General Assembly passing the Transportation Investment Act this year.

The law allows voters within established districts - regional commissions - throughout Georgia to decide whether to add the sales tax to pay for transportation and transit improvements, from new roads to maintenance and operation.

Each regional commission must knit together a regional transportation roundtable, including a county and city representative from each county in the region. The county representative is that county's top elected official and the city representative is a mayor as selected by other mayors in the county.

The Georgia Mountains Regional Commission has 13 counties.

To proceed toward a 2012 vote on the tax, the roundtable must decide on a final project list by Oct. 15.

Each roundtable will pick a five-member executive committee. No county can have more than one member on that committee.

"That's when the real rubber meets the road," Lewis said. "But ... it's down to that 26 when it's finally all said and done."

If voters within the district approve the tax, the state would begin distributing proceeds in 2013, with 75 percent of the money dedicated to regional projects decided on by the roundtable and 25 percent going to local governments using their discretion on projects.

The issue earlier met some resistance from Hall County government leaders.

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 in an earlier interview. "We're getting very positive responses out of all of our rural counties."

The issue came up again at the Joint Municipal Association's quarterly meeting in October.

"Each city needs to look at the areas and get the Department of Transportation updated," said Stan Brown, Oakwood city manager and head of the association's transportation work group. "More people are on the roads than what we get credit for. We as cities need to work with the county to make sure our records match."

Looking toward the Jan. 5 meeting, Cumming Mayor Ford Gravitt said he sees that as a primarily organizational session.

"That's probably what it's going to wind up as - get everybody's feel on it and what their community looks like, as far as working toward a transportation fee," he said.

Area officials have had some preliminary discussions going into the meeting and "everybody knows that roads and bridges are in terrible shape in the state of Georgia," said Gravitt, Forsyth County's city representative on the roundtable. "They need to be updated and improved."

Gainesville Mayor Ruth Bruner, Hall County's city representative, said of the steps leading to the 2012 vote, "We have to work with it because this is the way we're going to be able to get transportation money for regional projects.

"We are little bit dubious about it because we also (have been) trying to pass (special purpose local option sales tax) votes to do major projects ... and I don't know if voters are going to approve both," she said.

Bruner said she believes picking the five-member committee could be a challenge.

"It's going to take some working together to try to compromise," she said.

"I think you have to look at geographically trying to be sure that you're being fair, and when you pick regional projects, you want to be sure that you're being fair to all the counties and that nobody is trying to do a power grab."

Bruner said she believes "the one thing we want to do is have projects that make sense on a regional (basis), where you're connecting things, connecting towns or truck routes and you don't have ... roads to nowhere."

Staff writer Carolyn Crist contributed to this report.