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State chamber leader touts transportation tax
Callaway calls 1 percent sales levy best economic tool
Todd Long, director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation, speaks this afternoon at the annual Georgia Department of Transportation forum sponsored by the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce at Gainesville State College.

OAKWOOD - The leader of a Georgia Chamber of Commerce group touted the transportation sales tax Wednesday "as probably the most significant vote we'll take in Georgia for a generation."

"If we don't pass this ... we will regret the day," said Doug Callaway, executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, to a group of government and business leaders. "This is the best economic tool we have at our disposal."

He made the remarks at the annual Georgia Department of Transportation forum sponsored by the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce. The event took place in the Continuing Education Building at Gainesville State College.

The forum has taken place for the past 20 years as a way for DOT officials to give updates on area road projects and discuss current state and federal transportation funding issues.

This year's forum has special significance because it precedes the state's first-ever vote on a 1 percent sales tax for transportation projects. The issue will be decided July 31 in 12 separate regions, with Hall County belonging to the 13-county Georgia Mountains Region.

The issue has polarized many Georgians, with supporters saying the tax is needed to improve roadway safety and boost economic development. Opponents say another tax isn't what Georgia needs as the state still tries to recover from the Great Recession.

If approved, Hall County's sales tax would rise to 8 percent from 7 percent.

The Georgia Chamber of Commerce has been promoting the issue, including hiring Callaway away from Florida, where he headed a similar transportation group.

Callaway acknowledged stern opposition to the sales tax in his comments.

"We've got an uphill battle," he said. "As important as (this tax) is and as ... common-sense as it is, to those of us who understand the benefits of it, to most voters out there, all this is is a tax increase.

"Quite frankly, if all I knew was that it is a tax increase, I'd vote no. But because I know the benefits, I'm going to vote yes."

The tax is expected to generate about $1.25 billion in the Georgia Mountains Region over 10 years, or until that amount is collected, whichever comes first. Hall County is expected to receive about $300 million to spend on nine regional projects.

The Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which set up the tax vote, calls for 75 percent of revenue to go for regional projects and 25 percent for local government to spend on discretionary transportation projects, including maintenance and operation efforts.

Under the 25 percent funding, Hall County and its city governments would receive about $4.8 million per year, or nearly $48 million over 10 years.

"This (tax) is also about local control," Callaway said. "I don't know about you, but I'm very conservative politically. I don't trust big government, whether it's in D.C. or ... under the Gold Dome. If you share that view, you ought to be voting yes.

"This is our chance to run our own lives."

The law also requires the creation of a five-member "citizen review panel" that would give an annual account of road projects in each region, said Todd Long, the DOT's planning director, who also spoke.

He gave a breakdown of how the tax would work if it's approved. He also discussed current funding methods and what would happen if the tax vote fails.

"We do have a federal (funding) program and that ... will be ongoing," said Long, former district engineer based in Gainesville. "It's just not at the level we're hoping for, and it depends on what the next (federal) transportation bill is.

"Georgia could see a 25 percent decrease in the funding we have now."

A region could decide to put the vote back on the ballot as early as two years after voter rejection.

If all regions pass the tax, the state would suddenly have $19 billion for transportation over a decade.

Economically, "that makes the entire state of Georgia more competitive, compared to our neighboring states," Callaway said.

"Similarly ... if one region passes it and an adjoining region does not, the one that passes it - in my view - is going to have a leg up, at least for the next two years."


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