Counties just outside Middle Georgia District hope for boost from T-SPLOST

jgaines@macon.comAugust 12, 2012 

While Middle Georgia transportation planners grope for ways to build roads without extra tax funding, officials in three adjacent state-drawn transportation regions are looking forward to a decade of tax revenue to ease their constituents’ travel and attract development.

In the 11-county Middle Georgia District, the transportation special purpose local option sales tax failed 44 percent to 56 percent July 31, driven largely by overwhelming opposition in populous Houston County.

But in several counties around the rim of Middle Georgia, planners are now calculating advantages and assessing why voters there endorsed the T-SPLOST while so many others didn’t.

Of a dozen regional commission districts statewide, only three passed the transportation local option sales tax July 31 -- and all of them adjoin Middle Georgia, arcing from Augusta in the east, passing southward and continuing to Columbus in the west.

Voters in the Central Savannah River Area District approved the T-SPLOST 54 percent to 46 percent. Two of its counties -- Hancock and Washington -- abut the Middle Georgia District.

The vast majority of Central Savannah River Area District projects will go to Augusta-Richmond County, which is by far the largest city in the region. But in relative terms, the more rural counties may see even greater benefits.

Hancock County is home to only 9,400 people, but it’s to get $12.5 million for three projects. Two of those are fairly minor road work on Gettis Street and Ga. 22 West, while $11.6 million is earmarked for building a Ga. 15 bypass around Sparta in about eight years.

The bypass will encourage trucks to use Ga. 15 as a direct route from Atlanta to Savannah and could lead to a trucking hub at Sparta, said Mayor William Evans of Sparta, the Hancock County seat.

Two-thirds of the 2,328 people who voted in Hancock County endorsed the T-SPLOST. That’s a quarter of the county’s total population of 9,429.

“I think the majority of voters saw it as a win-win for this community, once they saw they would get more in regional funds than they were putting in,” said Evans, a member of the regional roundtable that set the district’s project list before the election.

Information from the regional commission and heavy promotion from the local development authority and Lions Club helped convince voters, Evans said. Also, two town hall meetings went a long way in answering questions, he said.

Washington County, with slightly more than twice Hancock County’s population, has $40.6 million on its T-SPLOST project list. Deepstep Road will get $2.8 million, and all the rest is slated for building a Ga. 15 bypass around Sandersville, the county seat. In Washington County, more than a quarter of the total population turned out July 31 to pass the T-SPLOST by an 8-percentage-points margin.

“I do think it’ll help our county, and I wish it had passed everywhere. But I understand people don’t like tax, and I don’t blame them,” said Washington County Commission Chairman Horace Daniel.

Daniel said he knew lots of people didn’t want the T-SPLOST, and others misunderstood it, but local officials promoted it vigorously and spoke to major civic groups.

The Sandersville bypass will be important, but equally important -- both in utility and as a boost in getting voters’ approval -- is the fact that local governments will get one-quarter of the T-SPLOST proceeds to allocate to road work of their own, he said.

Many rural roads will be resurfaced, and many others will be paved for the first time. That work will be spread across the entire district, Daniel said.

In just the first six months after Jan. 1, 2013, the T-SPLOST should bring close to $800,000 into local coffers, he said.

Daniel said he hopes work can start on some roads quickly, to show voters they’re getting what they were promised. Though the Sandersville bypass isn’t scheduled until at least 2020, the Deepstep Road work is planned within the next three years.

In the River Valley District, most projects go to Columbus-Muscogee County, likewise the biggest population center. In Dooly and Macon counties which adjoin the Middle Georgia District, voters gave the T-SPLOST a thumbs-up by comfortable margins.

Macon County has $9.6 million earmarked for three projects. By contrast, Dooly County has just one designated project: $6.9 million for passing lanes and traffic signals on U.S. 41. But that’s very important -- and not just to Dooly County residents themselves, County Commission Chairman Terrell Hudson said.

“Actually, we’re going to get some things that might help some of the people in Middle Georgia,” he said. The improvements on U.S. 41 will run all the way across Dooly, from the Houston County line in the north to Crisp County in the south. They’re scheduled to be complete by the end of 2015.

“That becomes kind of important when Interstate 75 bogs down with a wreck or heavy weather or something,” Hudson said.

The real windfall for Dooly County, he said, is the one-quarter of total T-SPLOST revenue for local work. That should bring in $1.1 million per year, with $960,000 going to the county itself and the rest split among six towns, Hudson said.

“It’s over three times what we normally get in state aid,” he said. Together with the usual allotment from the gasoline tax, the T-SPLOST will get road funding back close to what it was five years ago, Hudson said.

Across much of the rest of Georgia, the tea party adamantly opposed any new tax for any purpose, he said. But there was virtually no organized opposition in the River Valley District, Hudson said. The T-SPLOST passed in all counties but one, and it was small, while Muscogee County voters in Columbus backed it strongly, he said.

Greater Columbus Chamber of Commerce members were “gung-ho supporters,” and the roundtable made sure to divide project funding equitably among the small rural counties, Hudson said.

“It was a good deal, we thought, for everybody when we came away from the table with the list,” he said.

The T-SPLOST actually failed in both Bleckley County and the much larger Laurens County, but voters in the rest of the Heart of Georgia Altamaha District pushed it over the top 52 percent to 48 percent.

Much of the announced road work will be in Baxley, in Appling County; but Laurens County is supposed to get $25 million for Hillcrest Parkway and part of the cost of an Oconee River bridge. Local projects include work on three bridges and 14 county roads, plus repaving work on dozens of smaller streets in half a dozen towns.

Bleckley County, with just 12,400 people, has one bridge project and 11 road paving or resurfacing jobs on its list, plus nine streets in the county seat of Cochran, which has a population of 5,200.

Cochran Mayor Pro Tempore Willie Basby said he expects the money for local street work will spark more involvement from Cochran residents and politicians; people can see the impact of those projects every day.

“That will make a great difference with us,” he said.

Basby said he thinks the T-SPLOST failed in Bleckley County partly because voters there were more interested in a local SPLOST. It was on the ballot at the same time, and the county SPLOST passed, he said.

The T-SPLOST got much heavier publicity across the rest of the Heart of Georgia Altamaha District, enough to sell a majority of voters on its benefits, Basby said.

“I thank God that it passed,” he said. “And I think if it ever comes up again, our people will be more informed.”

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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