I'm blaming it on the heat. Why else would I sit in front of my computer reading 126 pages of minutes from the first meeting of the Northwest Georgia Regional Transportation Roundtable? Heck, I doubt if the elected officials who actually participated in the meeting read this stuff. I really should have done some of the yard work on my to-do list, but now I know more about T-SPLOST (Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) than I ever thought I needed to know.
This is a very complicated issue to explain, with lots of government speak and legal mumbo jumbo. Nevertheless, in July 2012, you, along with the other residents of Bartow and those of 14 neighboring counties that make up our northwest Georgia region, will be called upon to cast a vote up or down for a 1 cent increase in the sales tax to help pay for needed local and regional transportation projects.
At this point you're probably mumbling something about tax increases, but this one is a little more complicated than the usual school system E-LOST or county SPLOST election you may have voted in before. If this transportation referendum does not pass there are serious consequences, such as reduced funding from the state for future local projects. Yes, the state is using the old carrot and stick approach.
We all know the Peach State has some serious transportation problems. It is estimated that Georgia would have to spend between $50 and $100 billion dollars on transportation projects over the next 25 years just to catch up to where we should be. Even with passage of these T-SPLOST referendums around the state, we'll be woefully short of the needed funds. If the T-SPLOST votes fail, then Georgia will be the transportation backwater of the nation, and that will hurt all of us in lost business opportunities.
Try to stick with me for just a couple of minutes and I'll attempt to give you the Cliff Notes version of what the Transportation Investment Act of 2010 means for you. If you want to also avoid doing yard work like me, I've provided some links you can use to dig more deeply into this issue.
Georgia is divided into 12 regional commissions and these same regional alignments are being used for the T-SPLOST referendums. The Northwest Georgia Regional Transportation Roundtable includes the counties of Bartow, Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade, Fannin, Floyd, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk, Walker and Whitfield.
The Northwest Georgia Roundtable that will put together the transportation project list for our region consists of the county commission chairman from each of the 15 counties, plus the mayor or equivalent from the largest city in each of these counties. For Bartow residents, County Commissioner Clarence Brown and Cartersville Mayor Matt Santini are our representatives.
Next summer all registered voters residing in our 15 counties will be eligible to participate in the referendum. The total vote count combined from all 15 counties will determine whether the referendum passes or fails. Even if the voters in a particular county vote against the proposal, if the referendum passes region-wide, the 1 cent sales tax would still be collected in that county and it would still participate in the transportation projects included on the approved list. The sales tax, if approved, will last for 10 years, and if my math is correct it would generate as much as $1.7 billion over that timeframe, according to state estimates.
At this point you're probably wondering exactly what we would get for those dollars. Unlike the metro Atlanta region's proposal, which has received extensive coverage in the AJC and other media, very little has been published concerning our northwest Georgia region.
Twenty-five percent of the sales tax dollars generated will be allocated to the individual counties and cities to use on local transportation projects as they each see fit. Road repaving and construction of sidewalks are among some of the things local governments might use their share of the revenue for. Cartersville and Bartow County are expected to receive a combined $3 to $4 million dollars per year over the 10-year period.
The other 75 percent of the revenue raised will go to major transportation projects. Earlier this year, the Roundtable met and put together a list of possible projects for consideration. This list was then forwarded to State Transportation Planner Todd Long, who analyzed the submission and then removed some projects from consideration that didn't meet certain requirements or for other reasons too complicated to break down here.
Long also added back to the list some projects the state would like the Roundtable to consider. As I mentioned earlier this is a very complicated process and a number of factors were involved in determining potential projects, such as the shovel readiness of the project and whether there are federal matching funds available. This current modified list is known as the "unconstrained list."
The cost to build everything included on Long's list would be almost twice what the sales tax is projected to generate over the 10-year period, so the executive committee of the Northwest Regional Roundtable has until Aug. 15 to whittle down the number of projects being considered. After a couple of public hearings and a lot of backroom politicking, the entire Roundtable has until Oct. 15 to finalize the project list that will be presented to voters next year.
Obviously, the representatives on the Roundtable will be working to make sure projects from their own counties stay on the list, but there are also several regional projects that will take cooperation to be included. Expect a lot of wheeling and dealing before this is finished.
The unconstrained list currently contains 30 Bartow County projects. Obviously, some will not make the final cut, but it includes smaller projects such as adding a traffic signal and intersection improvements at U.S. 411 and Cass-White Road to help handle the increased traffic generated from the new Cass High, and medium scale projects like rebuilding the intersection at Cass-White Road and Interstate 75. It also contains major projects such as widening State Route 140 from Floyd County to I-75, and also widening U.S. 41 from Cassville to Gordon County.
With depressed economic conditions and many voters in a "no new taxes" kind of mood, it remains to be seen whether this proposal can pass next summer. However, failure to approve the measure opens the door to worsening traffic gridlock and new businesses passing us by, along with the jobs they would create.
Here are those links I promised, so take a look and let me know what you think:
- The entire unconstrained project list by county including all 30 proposed Bartow County projects, which also is attached to this column.
- A list of detailed questions and answers.