$1 billion regional sales tax could raise cooperation stakes

A regional sales tax could pump more than $1 billion into area transportation projects while forcing area governments to work together.

State estimates show the sales tax, which Middle Georgia voters will consider in two years, would pull in at least $75 million a year beginning in 2013. A majority of that money would go toward road construction, state guidelines suggest.

Laura Mathis, director of public administration for the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, said she has no doubt that demand will far exceed any tax revenue.

“It is a lot of money, but when you’re talking about transportation projects, they cost a lot of money,” she said.

Don Tussing, principal planner with the Macon Area Transportation Study, a regional planning agency, said local officials haven’t begin to look at exactly how much need is in the Middle Georgia region.

Rural counties, the Macon area and the Warner Robins area have been running separate planning processes, he said.

Mathis has been analyzing the sales tax proposal, created under House Bill 277.

Some questions, such as whether governments could finance bigger projects to begin construction before needed sales-tax money is collected, haven’t been answered by state officials.

That means major projects, such as a proposed $178 million connector from Ga. 247 near the Middle Georgia Regional Airport to Interstate 16 at Sgoda Road in Twiggs County, could remain unbuilt for years as sales-tax collections piled up.

The transportation sales tax law also strikes unusual compromises among governments and people in the area. Smaller communities such as Hawkinsville would get the same voting power as Macon or Houston County.

The county government and one city government from each county get a vote each, regardless of population, on which projects to put before voters. That would give smaller communities power disproportionate to their sizes.

But the sales tax needs to be approved by half of the voters, which could give the counties with more people more power.

The state offers a substantial carrot-and-stick mix to voters: If voters approve a regional sales tax, counties will pay 10 percent of the costs on a state road program that is typically used to repave existing roads. But if voters reject the regional sales tax, local governments will have to pay half the bill -- five times as much.

Todd Long, director of planning for the Georgia Department of Transportation, said the regional sales-tax money will supplement state and federal funding, effectively putting billions of dollars more into Georgia’s transportation system.

“It will not replace those state funds. The federal allotment we get from federal funds is still going to come to us from Washington,” he said.

And federal money would be needed for some of the plans. One set of projects, which would widen the last few miles of Interstate 16, rebuild the interchange with Interstate 75, and widen the road to Pierce Avenue, is estimated to cost about $429 million, or nearly half of the estimated sales-tax collection money for the entire region for a decade.

Local officials would develop a project list over the next year.

Draft documents would prohibit using any money for running transit programs not already running by next year.

A group, Georgians for Passenger Rail, hopes to launch train service between Atlanta and Macon by 2018 at a cost of $400 million, and said operations and maintenance would cost about $25 million a year.

The majority of the sales tax money, about 50 to 70 percent, would go toward road widenings, interchanges, interstate improvements, economic development corridors and other major road construction.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.