Controversial tax paying off for rural Georgia transportation

Four years ago this month Atlanta voters sent a regional transportation tax down in flames. But other, more rural communities across the state, though also apprehensive about the tax proposal, decided their transportation needs outweighed their hesitations.

Now, they’re reaping the benefit. Take Sumter County nestled in the countryside about 150 miles south of Atlanta. Fifty-year-old dirt roads there that had never seen an inch of asphalt are now smooth blacktop tracks. Potholes are disappearing.

Instead of hearing from people waiting for something to change, County Commission Chairman Randy Howard said he’s getting phone calls, letters and emails from residents with a unanimous message: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Sumter is located in one of three regions across the state that in 2012 approved the controversial sales tax, or T-SPLOST, that metro Atlanta and eight others roundly rejected. The tax would have raised $7.2 billion over a decade for transportation projects in the 10-county metro Atlanta region alone.

Advocates argued the plan was key to ensuring metro Atlanta’s economic health and vitality. Critics, meanwhile, say the plan tried to appease every community a little without satisfying any of them enough.

Ultimately, the skepticism won out. And while a number of community-specific transportation projects have developed since then, the region as a whole remains mired in the same traffic woes – if not worse ones now – as it did in 2012.

Meanwhile, voters in the three regions that did approve the tax – the River Valley in the southwest, Heart of Georgia Altamaha in the south and the Central Savannah River Area in the east – were skeptical too. They worried the government wouldn’t live up to its promises.

Over time, however, Howard and other government officials who were once critics of the plan have turned into ardent supporters.

“We’re crazy about it,” Howard said.

‘Everyone’s a winner’

Like elsewhere in the state, voters in the three regions had plenty of reasons to say no to the transportation referendum.

There’s fear of the unknown with such an untested and massive undertaking and distrust in government spending. That’s certainly how Karen Judd felt before joining the agency, called the Transportation Investment Act, or TIA, that oversees the projects funded by the T-SPLOST.

“I remember thinking the same thing,” said Judd, communications manager for the TIA. “Can we trust the state to deliver on these projects? Can they do it? Will they do it?”

A recent survey of local officials in the three regions found that 95 percent were happy with the progress made on transportation projects. The TIA just finished its first phase in each region on time and with a surplus in many areas.

Judd said the key to success was giving regions and local officials complete control in choosing projects. From there they tried to step in when needed, but for the most part TIA is about providing regions the means to create change and letting them take it from there, she said.

That’s highlighted in the regional project list, but also in how the tax revenue is distributed. Of all T-SPLOST money, 25 percent goes back to smaller communities for local projects.

The tax will ultimately bring in a projected $1.5 billion over the next decade to fund 871 transportation projects across the three regions. They are resurfacing roads and building new bridges, widening highways and constructing bypasses, adding sidewalks and bike trails.

Billy Trapnell, mayor of the small town of Metter in Candler County, said that autonomy has made all the difference. Rather than certain communities seeing more construction than others, they’ve been able to blanket the benefits across the region.

“We’ve got to design this in a way so that everyone’s a winner,” he said.

‘Look at what they’re doing’

The success of the transportation tax in some regions has not gone unnoticed by others that originally rejected it.

The 11-county region of Middle Georgia, which includes Macon, voted to reconsider the tax and create a regional roundtable tasked with coming up with a potential list of projects it would fund. That process can take up to a year, which means a referendum wouldn’t be on the ballot until at least November 2017.

Middle Georgia had its own “aha” moment about how T-SPLOST can work for them after developing 2012’s project list, said Laura Mathis, executive director of the middle Georgia Regional Commission. She also acknowledged that the region has taken note of those already benefiting from the T-SPLOST.

“There was a sense of, ‘Look at what they’re doing,’” Mathis said. “It’s a lot more money than they thought they’d get.”

But it’s bigger than just adjoining regions seeing what’s happening in the next yard over, said said Andy Crosson, executive director of the Central Savannah River Area Regional Commission.

People from all over the country are interested in how Georgia created a program with an approval rating practically unheard of in government programs, especially those that pair state and local interests, Crosson said.

It all comes back to the autonomy the regions have to choose the projects that are the most important to improving their own areas, he said.

In metro Atlanta, T-SPLOST advocates say it was the lack of such willingness to work together as a region — and not just alone as separate counties and cities — that’s impeded transportation progress since 2012.

“With all of us working locally, it makes it harder to make those regional connections,” said Alyssa Davis, program director of Advance Atlanta, a group that sees regional transit as key to a healthy, competitive economy.

‘I’d fight hard for it’

Meantime, the regions that embraced the transportation referendum four years ago are eager not to lose their momentum.

In the River Valley, roads are being widened and rickety bridges rebuilt. There’s a plan to extend the River Walk in Columbus — connecting the city’s business district downtown to the popular northside of town. Three express bus Park-N-Ride locations are planned in Columbus and Muscogee County, improving regional transit options.

In all, just over $410 million in T-SPLOST money will fund projects there through at least 2022.

People don’t want to see those improvements and the relationship forged between state and local officials come to an end; that’s coming through loud and clear from residents, said Howard, the commissioner from Sumter County, which is located in the River Valley region. And when it comes to thinking about eventually renewing the program, Howard said he’s definitely going to be on the front lines.

“I’d fight hard for it,” he said. “And I think all the other candidates would agree with me because all you can see is good.”

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