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Transportation tax vote battle begins
Some $600 million in projects are set for Hall and Forsyth counties
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As a principled Republican, Jim Pilgrim is against tax increases.

"That being said, government should do for the people what the people can't do for themselves," said the North Hall County resident. "And I can't build roads, and our infrastructure has got problems."

Voters like Pilgrim have a pivotal decision to make July 31: whether to approve a 1 percent sales tax for transportation improvements. In Hall, that means raising the sales tax to 8 cents on the dollar from 7 cents.

Supporters say it is Georgia's best hope of fixing roads in the face of fading gas-tax revenues and uncertain federal money. Opponents said it will further strain already financially struggling families.

The campaigns for and against the tax can begin in earnest now that 12 designated regions throughout the state have met Saturday's deadline to submit transportation project lists to the state.

And some watchers of the T-SPLOST, as it is commonly called in reference to transportation and governments' special purpose local option sales taxes, say a tough battle lies ahead.

"It's going to be a difficult sell," said University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock.

He said he believes people who have supported previous SPLOST votes in their communities may believe their county will get shortchanged by the roads tax while neighboring counties they seldom visit will get the bulk of the money.

"I think there may not be as clear a linkage between the paying of the penny and the benefit received for this regional set of projects as it is when it's exclusively in your county," Bullock said.

The 13-county Georgia Mountains region, which includes Hall County, is an example of neighboring counties ranging widely in the number of projects.

Some $600 million in projects are set for Hall and Forsyth counties, by the far the largest in the region, with the total for regional projects estimated at about $945 million.

"I know there are some projects in other counties that are going to help their counties more than this (tax) would in our county," said Bill Kendall, the Towns County sole commissioner.

"If we could have gotten the roads improved going out toward Atlanta, it would have helped our county more."

Kendall was the only member of a 26-member Georgia Mountains transportation roundtable to oppose the projects list and putting it to voters.

He based his vote on a pledge he had made to voters to not support the sales tax jumping to 8 percent from 7, which is Towns' current tax rate.

Kendall wrote about his opposition in a letter addressed to roundtable members and Todd Long, director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation.

"I also feel the (transportation act) is flawed in many areas and should be sent back to the legislature," he said in the letter.

"I am adamantly opposed to legislation that, instead of putting before voters issues to be decided on their merits, attempts to (force) officials and voters to vote for the tax or else."

If voters don't approve the project list, governments in that particular region must match 30 percent of state DOT Local Maintenance and Improvement Grants, compared to 10 percent if the tax is approved.

Those are rules imbedded in the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which the General Assembly passed after years of debating ways to pay for and catch up on transportation needs in the fast-growing state.

The law gives voters the ultimate say on whether they want to tax themselves for improvements. The vote is statewide but will be decided in the individual regions. A majority vote throughout the region, or 50 percent plus 1, will pass the referendum.

Government officials had the task of preparing project lists to put before voters, with regional commissions — including the Gainesville-based Georgia Mountains Regional Commission — out front in that process.

The roundtables comprised top county and city officials and produced from that group five-member executive committees.

The executive panel did much of the heavy lifting, sifting through road projects in trying to match estimated project costs to estimated revenues.

The Georgia Mountains region is expected to receive $1.26 billion over the life of the tax, with 75 percent going for regional projects and 25 percent going to city and county governments to use as they see fit, including for maintenance and operations.

Hall County proposes some $300 million in projects under the tax, with another $61.5 million for the local, discretionary projects.

After the Georgia Mountains roundtable gave its Oct. 5 approval to the project list, Danny Lewis, executive director of the regional commission, quickly cautioned area leaders about trying to influence voters on the issue.

"Make sure you understand: We can't sell it, but we can educate," he said. "There's a lot of difference between selling and educating. ... The main thing we want people to do is vote."

The Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce's board of directors is set to vote Oct. 27 on whether to endorse the tax. A special chamber group would later form to push the tax.

"We're behind the scenes getting that in place," said Kit Dunlap, the chamber's president and CEO. "I feel pretty positive about it, but you don't ever know what's going to happen."

Last week, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce named the executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, an affiliate organization created earlier this year to focus on long-term transportation strategy, beginning with the passage of the sales tax.

The new leader is Doug Callaway, who has served as president of Floridians for Better Transportation since 2003. He begins his job Nov. 1.

"I am confident that, working with our key stakeholders, he will effectively lead our efforts to build a statewide multimodal transportation network and solidify our position as a global logistics hub - both of which will have a positive impact on Georgia's economy," said Chris Clark, Georgia Chamber president and CEO, in a prepared statement.

Callaway said, "The state has a great network of existing transportation assets to build upon and the business community can play a significant role in informing and executing the right strategy for the future.

"Passing the T-SPLOST in as many regions as possible next year will be an important first step."

Srikanth Yamala, transportation planning manager for the Gainesville-Hall Metropolitan Planning Organization, said "other than the intersection improvement projects on Hall County's final list, none of the roadway widening projects have dedicated funding sources identified at this time.

"Going with the current federal and state funding levels, it could take at least 20-25 years for all these projects to be completed," he added.

"Unless we come up with some other funding mechanism, an opportunity to invest in transportation infrastructure that we would otherwise not be able to fund in a relatively shorter period would be lost."

Pilgrim said he sees next year's vote as a sort of Catch-22.

"I hate to see our tax rate go up to 8 percent. These are tough times," he said. "People can't afford to be taxed more, but we also got to have roads."

 

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