With the July 31 primary closing in, the vote on the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (T-SPLOST) weighs heavy for critics and supporters. If approved regionally, a 1 percent regional sales tax would begin in early 2013, bringing a projected $876 million to the 11-county Middle Georgia region for 76 transportation projects.
Baldwin County is third behind Bibb and Houston in project funding based off population and road mileage. In addition to the 75 percent monies for regional projects, the remaining 25 percent falls under discretionary funds for local city and county use.
The Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission (GSFIC) will distribute the monies. The proceeds can be used on transportation projects as defined in the Transportation Investment Act (TIA) of 2010 and may also serve as the local match for state transportation projects and grants.
If the referendum doesn't pass in a particular region, the match for local maintenance and improvement grants through the Georgia Department of Transportation goes up from 10 to 30 percent. The region’s voters have the option to re-vote on the tax in two years.
The TIA authorized the T-SPLOST referendum as a means for transportation infrastructure investment. Currently, Georgia's motor fuel tax is the main funding tool for state transportation, but it is falling short of the need, according to the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT).
The Fall Line Regional Development Authority was formed several years ago to focus on long-range plans and development along U.S. 441 and the Fall Line Freeway. Dr. Jo Ann Jones, chair of the authority, said the regional and local growth potential aided by T-SPLOST funds is vital to Baldwin and the Middle Georgia region.
“I think we very much need it. I think it would be great for development to attract business in the community. Building roads hires a lot of people. It's stimulating,” Jones said.
While no one seems to like a new tax, Cogentes owner and Milledgeville-Baldwin Chamber Transportation Committee member Tom Glover said the vote is critical to the economic future, and if passed, local T-SPLOST monies can offset funds earmarked for transportation.
“Gas taxes aren't getting the revenue. We are getting greener. It's a good thing really,” Glover said. “It's a give and take from different sides. The improvements need to be made.”
Along with the 25 percent funds generated for local government, the two largest Baldwin regional projects, the Fall Line Freeway corridor from Wilkinson County to Baldwin County and the U.S. 441 North Bypass construction connecting to Putnam County, could address downtown traffic issues and boost development.
The Fall Line Freeway corridor is 215 miles long and traverses from Columbus to Augusta. The four-lane roadway is 95 percent open to traffic and the section in Baldwin is scheduled for construction in 2016.
Milledgeville Mayor Richard Bentley was part of the regional committee roundtable that determined the project list. He said the inclusion of the Fall Line Freeway completion was a big win.
“It's been worked on for years. GDOT agreed that if we passed the T-SPLOST they would expedite the completion of the Fall Line Freeway. I would personally be willing to put off some projects to finish the Freeway. I think it will benefit us the most,” Bentley said.
Milledgeville-Baldwin County Development Authority Director Matt Poyner said passing the T-SPLOST shows businesses the area is serious about investing in the future, and selling Middle Georgia as a whole helps everybody involved. There may also be an ancillary impact in jobs potential, he noted.
“I'm a big proponent of regionalism. If this passes, who's to say a project in Houston County won't have Baldwin County sub-contractors working on it and vice versa? It's good for the whole area,” Poyner said.
The Fall Line Freeway brings an enormous potential to grab economic opportunity and open up a new land market with four-lane access, according to Poyner.
With two state roads running through downtown Milledgeville, large trucks add danger to a bustling area filled with students and merchant visitors.
The T-SPLOST funds a downtown bypass and discretionary funds could also assist. City Council District 4 representative Phillip Joiner, whose district includes much of the downtown area, said the truck route creates some line of sight issues along with congestion, noise and air pollution.
“That stretch of Hancock Street is the city's most used pedestrian route, and it happens to be the state truck route,” Joiner said. “Those two things don't match up, and we need to address it one way or another.”
With the desire for downtown beautification and the growth of community events like First Friday, the current road setup is not conducive to necessary street section closings. Joiner said the city could use the 25 percent monies for this purpose.
“If our region passes the T-SPLOST, it will certainly give us a lot of resources and flexibility to make some much-needed improvements in the transportation initiatives. The 25 percent is enough money for us to look into some other projects. I think it's important for us to be very deliberate and judicious with the money and not rush to spend it,” Joiner said.
A five-member Citizen Review Panel in each of region made up of non-elected officials will provide oversight and monitor how the dollars are spent. GDOT communications officer Cissy McNure said the GDOT will not control the monies and will only receive payments for reimbursements encumbered for design and construction of the projects.
Projects not 100 percent funded by the T-SPLOST will receive additional funding from gas tax dollars. McNure said project controls would be put in place to limit cost over-runs. In fiscal year 2011, GDOT's website claims 99 percent of the state’s transportation construction projects were delivered on budget.
Poyner worked with the GDOT in Bibb County and sees evidence in support of the project completion and budget parameters projections. Several projects like the I-75 ramp in Macon came in a month ahead and under budget, according to Poyner.