Tuesday’s vote on the transportation sales tax is a key issue in our state and region. That’s why The Times sent a reporter and photographer to each of the 13 counties in the Georgia Mountains Region that will be affected by the vote. You can read the stories on the projects, plus find an interactive map, at gainesvilletimes.com/roadahead.
Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.
Tuesday’s Georgia primary ballot offers many interesting races to lure voters, and early voting figures indicate they are responding.
In Hall County, there are hotly contested races for the new 9th District U.S. House seat, three county commission posts, sheriff, tax commissioner and probate judge. Elsewhere, voters will choose a new state representative from a new South Hall-Gwinnett seat, plus several other contested races.
But wherever you live in Georgia, the item on Tuesday’s ballot that is drawing the most attention is the option to charge an extra 1 percent sales tax in 12 regions across the state to fund specific transportation projects.
The levy, if passed, would either run for 10 years or raise $1.25 billion, whichever comes first, to fund 63 projects throughout a 13-county Georgia Mountains region that includes Hall, Forsyth, Banks, Dawson, Habersham, Lumpkin and White counties. Some 75 percent would go to designated projects, the rest to local governments.
Debate over the special purpose local option sales tax, or T-SPLOST, has been spirited. Those in favor, many business owners and those with a stake in the local economy, believe solving the area’s traffic headaches is important enough to raise sales taxes. Their foes have a number of objections, starting with the notion of raising taxes of any kind.
Everyone agrees the challenge of getting goods to market, workers to their jobs, emergency vehicles to the scene of accidents and students to school on time is hampered by overcrowded highways. As the region’s population has grown, the infrastructure has not kept pace, and upgrades are needed to roads and bridges to make them safer and more navigable. The question is how best to pay for those fixes.
Opponents claim the roads tax is a cop-out by legislators who want to avoid raising taxes in an election year. Yet lawmakers did what we often request they do: Leave the decision to us. And they did so via regional votes to give some degree of local autonomy to each area of the state to spend on its own needs, perhaps because many Georgians felt more money and attention has gone to metro Atlanta transportation needs in the past.
Some say they don’t trust that the money will go to the projects listed. Though a citizens oversight committee appointed by the House speaker and lieutenant governor will be created to oversee the tax allocation, many are concerned it will be influenced by political cronyism. That’s a valid concern, and it’s important we continue to push for strict accountability if the tax passes.
Folks in some of the smaller counties are concerned the bulk of the money and improvements will go to more populous areas. It’s true that the outlay and the benefits don’t always add up; Hall, for instance, is estimated to receive $1.45 in return for every $1 of sales tax invested. Other counties will pay more and get less.
But there’s no other way to do this. A statewide sales tax still would steer more money toward urban areas, where there are more people and more roads. It’s important to take a step back and see how the state’s areas are interconnected, and that improvements to one community can benefit all. For instance, residents in the rural counties of the Georgia Mountains region often come to Gainesville’s Northeast Georgia Medical Center for their health needs. Better roads should make that commute, and to the health system’s new hospital planned near Braselton, much easier and safer.
And many T-SPLOST foes say the economy is just too weak right now to ask Georgians to pay more. Also true; yet again, it’s important to see the big picture. The long-term boost to the economy from an improved transportation system will benefit everyone in the long run.
Nobody likes paying higher taxes, just as no one likes paying a plumber or a roofer when the needs arise. But just as you can’t let your house fall down around you, we can’t let our highways stay clogged and our bridges crumble. If our economy is going to grow, new industries must bring good-paying jobs. That’s not going to happen without modern infrastructure, adequate public safety and good schools.
Perhaps the strongest argument made against the T-SPLOST is from those who say the costs of improving roads should fall directly on those who use them most — drivers — and that an increase in Georgia’s historically low fuel taxes should fund the projects. That’s a fair point. And, in fact, such an increase still may be needed later to pay for maintenance and upkeep on the projects started by the sales tax.
However, a higher fuel tax also would hit folks hard in the wallet, in two ways: First at the pumps, and again in higher costs for goods and services passed on from businesses hit by those same higher fuel prices. That would affect both drivers and non-drivers. So there’s always going to be a price to pay for road improvements.
It’s hard to say how voters will swing on Tuesday. It could be a very close vote in every region, including here.
Our hope is that voters will take the long view and see where we need to be, not just next year, but in five, 10 and 20 years. We can’t stick our heads in the sand and hope our regional population growth will just go away. To be smart, we must prepare for that growth by funding the things we need to manage it.
Even if the tax fails, at some point Georgians need to bite the bullet to pay for new road projects. Doing so now, with this sales tax, is the right step, and we believe a “yes” vote on Tuesday is the wise choice.