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Georgia's voters will have final say on transportation sales tax

Posted: October 26, 2011 - 12:27am  |  Updated: October 26, 2011 - 12:54am

You would not think that politicians from 159 counties would be able to set aside their personal differences and local biases long enough to agree on a list of expensive road projects, but it seems to have happened.

The “regional roundtables” of elected officials from 12 districts around the state have now finalized their lists of highway and transit projects for the 2012 referendums on whether to impose a one-penny sales tax, the T-SPLOST, to pay for the construction work over the next 10 years.

“It’s been a joy for me, but I’m glad it’s over with,” said Douglas County Commissioner Tom Worthan after voting with his colleagues to adopt the project list for Metro Atlanta.

The money available to each district varies widely, as does the scope of the projects involved.

In Metro Atlanta, where you have the largest share of population and tax revenues, they propose to spend more than $6.1 billion on transportation projects, with more than half of the money dedicated to bus and rail transit facilities.

In districts outside Atlanta such as the Central Savannah River region, which includes Columbia, Richmond, Lincoln and Wilkes counties, the amount involved is about $539 million and the money would be spent primarily on road or bridge projects.

If the tax is approved by the voters next year, it would represent one of the largest commitments of public funds for infrastructure ever seen in this state. It’s probably the best opportunity Georgians will have to deal with traffic congestion and make badly needed road improvements.

We now spend less money on highways than every other state except Tennessee, but that ranking would change if voters in some or all of the districts pass the T-SPLOST.

“We are in the bottom tier of investment,” said Todd Long, planning director of the state Department of Transportation. “This will put us in the top tier.”

Now that the political disagreements have been resolved over which projects will be funded, the hard work begins: convincing voters, in the middle of an economic downturn that seems to have no end, to approve a sales tax increase.

The date for the tax referendums is now set for July 31, which coincides with the Republican and Democratic primary elections.

That choice of dates could be the one hurdle that supporters of the transportation tax are not able to clear. There is already strong opposition developing to the T-SPLOST among tea party organizations and other anti-tax groups around the state.

Holding the referendum at the same time as a low-turnout primary election in the middle of the summer could make it easier for the anti-tax activists to defeat it.

There was an attempt during the recent legislative redistricting session to move the referendum date to the Nov. 6 general election, but conservative lawmakers thwarted it. Another attempt to move the date may be made during the regular General Assembly session, but it could also come to nothing.

Even if the July 31 date stands, business organizations like the Georgia Chamber of Commerce will raise and spend an estimated $6 million to $10 million in their efforts to persuade voters to approve the tax.

“If you move it to November, the prospects for passing it increase by about 1 percent, the data shows,” Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said when asked about the impact of the election date. “We’re not going to quit if we have a July election.”

The polls that have been conducted on the T-SPLOST issue show only tepid support for it. The district that appears to have the best shot at passing the tax is Metro Atlanta, where drivers have to deal with some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.

“We are losing business relocations in all of our counties because of traffic,” Reed contended. “There’s nobody who can look at the traffic in Atlanta and tell you we don’t need to fix it.”

The politicians make a valid argument for a tax increase to pay for better transportation facilities. It’s not clear, at this point, whether their constituents will agree with that argument – but it’s their call.

“It’s up to the public,” said Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson, who chaired the Metro Atlanta roundtable. “It’s in their hands.”

(Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an internet news service at gareport.com.)

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