Business leaders push for regional sales tax

mlee@macon.comMarch 19, 2012 

ATLANTA -- Three midstate counties voted themselves a new penny sales tax this month. The question will soon be repeated. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce is taking the lead in the push to persuade midstate voters to approve a multicounty sales tax that will fund as much as $1 billion in major road, rail and bridge works over 10 years.

That list of regional projects will be up for approval on the July 31 primary ballot in Bibb, all bordering counties, plus Pulaski, Wilkinson, Baldwin and Putnam.

The biggest proposed road project on the list is the widening of Bass Road and adding turn lanes for the roughly four miles from Zebulon Road to Interstate 75 in Bibb County, at a cost of nearly $43 million. Work on that would start in about 2020. If voters approve, tax collection will start in Jan. 2013 and sunset after 10 years.

The next biggest projects are widening State Road 96 for eight miles in Twiggs County, at $41 million, and Interstate 16/I-75 interchange improvements for $34 million.

The 76 projects on the list will get three-fourths of revenue from the proposed transportation sales tax, or T-SPLOST. The remaining one-fourth of T-SPLOST revenue would be distributed back to counties and cities, based roughly on road miles and population, for a list of smaller local projects not yet named.

The proposal mixes all 11 counties together. The outcome in any particular county does not matter; the campaign just needs 50 percent plus one vote regionwide to take effect in all 11 counties.

Economic development promised

The spend is about “jobs, safety and local control,” said Doug Callaway, executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, the Georgia Chamber of Commerce affiliate in charge of transportation strategy.

Callaway argues the spending means more than just construction jobs. It’s about wider economic growth: “Surrounding states don’t have anything at their disposal like us to kickstart their economy.” He says just the prospect of such a large transportation investment is part of what lured Caterpillar to announce last month construction of a new heavy machinery factory near Athens.

Safety includes things such as turning lanes, wider lanes and shoulders.

As for local control, the project list was decided by local elected officials, who held public meetings. The state Department of Transportation, however, was allowed edits.

In the coming months, Middle Georgians will start to see a pro-SPLOST campaign outlining specific regional benefits. GTA took the lead in setting up the campaign, called Connect Georgia 2012.

“We see it as a competitive issue,” said Michael Dyer, president and CEO of the Macon Economic Development Commission. Anything that helps speed people and goods through Macon, he said, “ensures we stay on the shortlist of companies looking to locate” in Georgia.

“What a disadvantage it would be if Augusta and Columbus pass it and we don’t,” he concluded.

A losing T-SPLOST means area governments that want to do a transportation build must raise some money locally then approach the Georgia Department of Transportation for matching funds.

Not so fast

A new T-SPLOST plus this year’s new county sales taxes “is much more than a penny tax, (it’s) hurriedly mounting up to nickels, dimes and dollars,” said Bibb County resident and self-described frequent road critic Lee Ballard. Ballard is also a contributor to The Telegraph’s Viewpoints section.

Another tax, on gasoline, is what already funds most of Georgia’s road-building bills.

And that tax rate is one of the lowest in the country, according to 2010 calculations by the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia.

For every gallon of gas sold wholesale, Georgia collects 7.5 cents. That’s the lowest gas excise gas tax rate in the United States, according to data compiled by the Federal Highway Administration in December 2010. The highest nationwide is Washington state at 37.5 cents. The highest in the Deep South is North Carolina at 32.2 cents. Georgia adds another four cents sales tax at the pump that not all other states impose. But taken together, per the Vinson report, Georgia still collects less than most states from fuel users.

At the state Capitol, there’s no proposal for raising that rate.

Ballard also opines that “12 regions making 12 separate decisions about roads is a spot-on example of lack of statewide vision.”

Indeed, the project list might look different if the list-makers looked outside their regions. A proposed Macon-to-Atlanta rail link runs through three separate regions. Not all three agreed it would be a useful spend, so that very big project has not got a space at the funding banquet that is supposed to feed Georgia transportation modernization for the next decade.

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