ABOUT THIS SERIES
Reporter Jeff Gill and chief photographer Tom Reed recently ventured into the North Georgia mountains for a driving tour of the proposed road projects that are a part of the July 31 transportation sales tax vote. It’s all part of a multipart project we are calling “The Road Ahead.”
Each day through July 1, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about the proposed sales tax. Join us as we visit each of the 13 counties in the Georgia Mountains Region, which stretch from Hall County to the Carolinas, to plot the roadways and intersections targeted for improvements, a slate of work expected to cost $1.25 billion over 10 years.
Monday: Lumpkin County
Tuesday: Rabun County
Wednesday: Stephens County
Thursday: Towns County
Friday: Union County
Saturday: White County
July 1: What would an extra penny of sales tax mean to the average family?
At a narrow strip of road near Union Circle, a century-old house marks the spot where a South Hall County family has lived and still calls home, with ancestry stretching into the 19th century.
“Beneath the concrete porch poured in the 1950s, there are ax-hewn logs, which would back up the family story of a pre-existing structure from the 19th century,” said Shannon Cole, who lives with her mother, Janyce Cole, in the house.
Progress has come to this once-quiet corner of Hall County, with plans for a four-lane Spout Springs Road running between Flowery Branch and Braselton, one of the key pieces of Hall’s projects list for the proposed 1 percent sales tax for transportation.
Government officials often point to Spout Springs when talking about the new tax, which will be decided in a July 31 statewide referendum.
The two-lane stretch is no longer a rural ride. It is brimming with homes, churches two of Hall County’s busiest schools, and it is straddled by two bustling commercial districts.
But it’s not the lone spot overwhelmed by years of rapid population growth, officials say.
“All we’re trying to do is ... provide the existing population with ample infrastructure needs,” said Srikanth Yamala, the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization’s transportation planning manager, at a June 7 public meeting on the July 31 sales tax vote.
Nine projects spread throughout Hall totaling some $300 million would be built using revenues from the sales tax, which would rise to 8 percent from 7 percent, if approved.
Each of 12 designated regions throughout Georgia will decide for or against the tax by a majority-plus-one vote.
Hall is part of the 13-county Georgia Mountains region, which stretches to the North Carolina and South Carolina borders.
Hall and Forsyth counties are the region’s most populated, and together they would contribute nearly two-thirds of the money for the projects and would receive nearly two-thirds as well.
Get more than it gives
Hall would receive slightly more money than Forsyth and would receive more than it contributes. Advocates have zeroed in on that consequence of the tax.
The estimate is “a $1.45 return for every $1 raised,” according to a document produced by Citizens for Better Transportation Region 2 Georgia.
Kit Dunlap, president and CEO of the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, and James McCoy, president and CEO of the Cumming-Forsyth Chamber of Commerce, are co-chairs in the organization.
The Greater Hall chamber’s board of directors voted in the fall to endorse the tax, with green-and-blue buttons saying “I’m voting Yes! for transportation on July 31” were handed out an April chamber meeting.
“We’re going to have even more transportation problems if we don’t take a forward-thinking, visionary approach to it,” State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, has said.
Hall County opponents also have jumped all over the sales tax issue, including Hall’s standing as a county receiving more than it contributes. In order for that to happen in the region, some other county or counties would have to lose ground on money returned for projects.
Forsyth, for instance, would contribute about $40 million more than it gets back over 10 years, the life of the tax, according to a chart produced by the Gainesville-based Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.
Critics also say they fear, with an eventual new governor and new group of lawmakers, that the sales tax won’t end after 10 years and it will become another Ga. 400, where the state “broke a promise” to stop tolls after a bond issue had been paid off.
Also coming under fire is the politically appointed citizens review panel charged with giving project updates to the Georgia General Assembly.
“It sounds like a feel-good panel ... to just make people think that there’s no waste in spending and everything is hunky-dory,” North Hall resident Brian Braham said.
Aside from the debate that has flared up on both sides, many of the proposed projects have been on Hall’s books for years, long before the state’s Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which paved the way for the July 31 referendum.
The Spout Springs widening is a newcomer compared to other projects, such as the U.S. 129/Athens Highway widening from Ga. 323/Gillsville Highway to the Pendergrass Bypass in Jackson County, or the Sardis Connector that would link Ga. 53/Dawsonville Highway to Ga. 60/Thompson Bridge Road.
Some projects already are in motion to some degree — such as preliminary engineering — with dollars coming from Hall’s special purpose local option sales tax revenue.
And that has left many residents wondering about the future.
“I won’t have any buildings left to be in business,” said Terrell Gaines, owner of Happy Pappy’s Storage of Thompson Bridge Road at Mount Vernon Road, talking about the Sardis Connector’s planned route.
“I’m 71 now — I’ll be 72 in August — and I don’t mind the road coming through. I can’t do anything with my property right now, as far as selling it,” he said. “But, at some point, I would like to retire and as long as (the government) pays a market value on the property, I don’t have a problem.”
Another major road project on the sales tax list calls for widening U.S. 129/Cleveland Highway in two phases between Limestone Parkway and White County.
Matt Damron, owner of North Hall Tire & Wheel, isn’t hopeful about the project’s effects.
“It’s probably going to kill the traffic here and kill small business here,” he said. “The early morning traffic is really the worst time on this road and the rest of it, you can manage it pretty well. As far as widening (U.S. 129), I’m sure there are other places they can spend money.”
Commercial growth targeted
Hall County officials say they hope the sales tax projects would do more than relieve congestion; they would also help with economic development.
A planned interchange off Interstate 985 between Exit 12 in Flowery Branch and Exit 16 in Oakwood would connect Martin Road to H.F. Reed Industrial Parkway at Thurmon Tanner — a busy industrial area that area officials have long touted.
Also proposed is the widening of Ga. 211/Old Winder Highway to four lanes from two between Ga. 53/Winder Highway and Gwinnett County. The new road would join a proposed or planned network of roads feeding into the Northeast Georgia Health System’s River Place complex, featuring a planned 100-bed hospital.
The complex, which has a medical building in place and another one planned, is expected to spur development related to health care.
For many residents, Hall’s planned or proposed improvements strike a very personal chord.
For Cole’s family, it would mean the passing of an era. The Spout Springs project is expected to happen sooner or later, but sales tax approval would move completion to a 2013-15 time frame.
“The (family) house and land have been passed down for generations, an important testament to the history of southern Hall County, and it will be sad to see it erased from existence,” she said.