The thought of rush hour on Ga. 400 in Forsyth County is enough to make one cringe. Traffic backs up fast on Spout Springs Road, a South Hall artery that once delivered a quiet ride in the country.
But then there are back roads in extreme North Georgia where you can drive for a couple of miles without seeing another car.
By its name alone, the Georgia Mountains region — one of 12 regions throughout Georgia that will vote July 31 on a transportation sales tax referendum — may evoke images of tight mountain curves and quaint downtown squares.
But it also features stop-and-go traffic snarls not unlike its metro Atlanta neighbors to the south.
Out of such diversity, Charles Bullock, a noted political scientist at the University of Georgia, poses what may be a tough question for some area voters to answer when considering the referendum.
“Will residents be convinced that the share (of tax money) going into their county is sufficient, that they’re willing to pay taxes to benefit other counties, some of which are going to be far away and maybe where they haven’t even traveled?” he said.
If voters do give their approval, the region would receive a projected $1.25 billion over 10 years, with the tax ending when that revenue amount is reached or 10 years, whichever comes first.
The money would be spent on 63 projects throughout the region, which comprises Hall, Banks, Dawson, Forsyth, Franklin, Habersham, Hart, Lumpkin, Rabun, Stephens, Towns, Union and White counties.
Some $944 million, 75 percent of the total revenue, would be spent on projects deemed to have regional impact.
The final projects list actually totals $803 million, with the difference taking into account inflation over the 10 years.
Regional officials have especially noted the widening of U.S. 129/Cleveland Highway in Hall from Limestone Parkway to White County, as it connects many North Georgians to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville.
Another 25 percent would be distributed to county and city governments to use as they see fit.
If the sales tax vote fails, the region would rely on current methods for transportation funding — mainly the motor fuel tax — unless another transportation bill gains footing under the Gold Dome.
And the current Georgia Department of Transportation’s Local Maintenance and Improvement Grants program would begin to require a match of 30 percent from local governments to obtain the money that typically funds local paving and other small road improvements.
The region wouldn’t be able to vote again on the sales tax for two years.
Traffic a longtime worry
Transportation in general has long been a thorny issue in Georgia, with legislators debating for years on funding methods before settling on the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which proposed the transportation tax.
Lawmakers have shunned raising the politically sensitive gas tax, which has remained the same rate since the 1970s.
The bill called for the creation of “transportation roundtables” of county and city leaders from each of the state’s regions. An executive committee formed from the roundtable then would meet to hash out a list of projects, paring down huge wish lists from each county.
“The transportation sales tax referendum gives Georgia voters the ultimate in local control,” said Gov. Nathan Deal, who is from Hall County.
“First, each region gets a say in whether to move forward with these transportation investments,” he said.
“Northeast Georgia doesn’t have to worry that another part of the state will reap all the benefits. Second, the project list was put together by local officials who know the needs of the area.”
Union County Sole Commissioner Lamar Paris, who was chairman of the Georgia Mountains roundtable, said that “a lot of people are touting that the majority of money is going to Forsyth and Hall. Well, they have the majority of the population and the revenue.”
Adam Hazell, planning director for the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission in Gainesville, produced a chart, using state data, to determine how much tax revenue counties might contribute to the region versus how much they could receive in regional projects and the local allocation.
The chart shows Hall County receiving nearly $15.4 million more than it would contribute and Forsyth receiving $39 million less than it would contribute. Lumpkin County would benefit the most, contributing $42 million and receiving $72.7 million.
“In (Union’s) case, we were willing to take a little bit less in that the Cleveland Bypass project and the four-lane (widening) of U.S. 129 to or near the hospital was a huge interest to us and our citizens,” Paris said.
Northeast Georgia “is where the vast majority of where our trauma cases go,” he added. “... I’d say about probably 80 percent of all medical (calls) go to Hall County.”
One of White County’s sales tax projects is the widening of U.S. 129 from Hall County to Hope Drive. The DOT has awarded a contract for the construction of the four-lane Cleveland Bypass from Hope Drive to Ga. 115.
The other project calls for extending the Cleveland Bypass from Ga. 115 to U.S. 129 North.
Divide across the region
The notion of regional projects doesn’t sit well with all residents.
“I know I would feel better if we ... would let our own people tax ourselves and keep the money in the county and then use that as we see fit,” said Hart County Commissioner Brandon Johnson, who served on the roundtable.
But the thing that seriously annoys local residents, he added, is the idea that the one or two larger counties — such as Hall and Forsyth — could dictate how the region votes as a whole.
Kiera Partlow, president of the Hart County Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber’s board of directors hasn’t taken a stance on the matter.
“We’re not getting involved with the voting,” she said. “... Some of the feedback we’ve gotten is the decision is going to be based on Hall County’s votes.”
The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors voted in the fall to support the tax.
Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Hall chamber, and James McCoy, president and CEO of the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce, are co-chairing Citizens for Better Transportation: Region 2, Georgia, which is promoting passage of the tax and has launched a website, connectgeorgiamountains.org.
On its website, the organization calls the tax an “investment to attract economic development and create jobs” and that “we may not get another chance to say yes to create jobs and improve our transportation network.”
Speaking to the tax’s reception throughout the Georgia Mountains region, Dunlap acknowledges that “the farther north you go (in the region), it’s a little more lukewarm,” Dunlap said.
“Some of the chambers are more in the education mode, which is fine. Obviously, Hall and Forsyth have the most population and the most to gain or the most to lose,” she added.
Deal said that while Georgia has seen significant growth in recent decades, “we have fallen behind on new investment and routes, and lean budget years have made it difficult to maintain our current roads and bridges.”
He added: “Not every person is going to agree with every project — no one ever does in a democracy — but I hope that a majority of voters will decide that we need this investment because the consequences of doing nothing are too dire.”
As part of a driving tour of regional projects, The Times found that many people aren’t familiar with the sales tax vote, including some affected by potential road projects.
The Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization has held two public meetings on the sales tax plans — drawing a small crowd at each — and has scheduled meetings for Tuesday at North Hall High School and June 25 at the Flowery Branch Depot.
Other residents have taken passionate stances against it.
“We’re in a recession right now, and I don’t think I can afford to pay any more taxes,” said Gillsville resident John Lipscomb of Lanier Tea Party Patriots, speaking out at a June 7 public meeting at the Georgia Mountains Center in Gainesville.
Towns County Sole Commissioner Bill Kendall was the only transportation roundtable member to vote against the sales tax. “We promised the people of the county we wouldn’t support the tax going to 8 percent when we passed our SPLOST,” he said.
Bruce Hallowell, a Clarkesville resident who lived in Hall for many years, said he believes — as many opponents do — that the tax would violate home rule of cities and counties.
“There are several attorneys contending this is unconstitutional and will file suit on this issue,” he said.
Hallowell also believes raising the gas tax is the answer.
“Let the users pay,” he said.
Voters get final say
If the vote passes, collection starts Jan. 1, with projects being funded in three time periods over 10 years: 2013-15, 2016-2019 and 2020-22.
The Georgia Department of Revenue will collect the revenue if the referendum is passed, and the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission will distribute the funds, according to a DOT website set up on the sales tax.
Also, federal funding that had been committed to some projects could be freed up to spend on other projects where funding isn’t as secure. And it could be used to develop other long-standing projects that didn’t make the project list.
Srikanth Yamala, the Gainesville-Hall MPO’s transportation planning manager, has cited as one example: the widening of Ga. 60/Thompson Bridge from Price Road to Lumpkin County. One of the projects on Lumpkin’s list is widening Ga. 60 from Hall County to Ga. 400.
In addition, the law calls for the creation of a “citizens oversight committee,” which would be charged with assessing the progress of projects and programs included on the investment list.
Panel members would be appointed by the speaker of the state House and the lieutenant governor. The committee must issue an annual report to the General Assembly detailing project progress and expenses.
For his part, Johnson said he is ready to accept whatever the voters decide.
“We’ll have to comply with it, and we’ll be as careful with that money as we can and make it go as far as we can,” he said.
North Hall residents Chris and Cindy Thompson also are eyeing the sales tax vote — but for a reason unlike many residents.
The DOT has identified their property as being in the right of way of the widening of U.S. 129/Cleveland Highway from Limestone Parkway to Jim Hood/Nopone Road — the first phase of the U.S. 129 project, with the second phase completing the widening to White.
The right-of-way markings are in public records.
“Our property still sits hostage on the GDOT website,” Cindy Thompson said in an email last week.
Asked if her situation might affect her vote on the sales tax, she said, “If I knew they would start our project in January 2013, I would vote for it ... just so we could rid ourselves of the mess.
“However, I don’t believe they will. There are always loopholes. So, I am probably going to vote no.”