T-SPLOST flop leaves local leaders looking for other roads to revenue

Voters’ defeat Tuesday of the proposed transportation special purpose local option sales tax, locally and across much of Georgia, left officials at a loss Wednesday on how to pay for growing infrastructure needs over the next decade.

A T-SPLOST vote was held in all 12 of the state’s regional commission districts, needing a simple majority in each to pass. Only three districts approved the 1-percent levy, in an arc running east, south and west of the Middle Georgia region.

In the 11-county district centered on Bibb County, voters rejected it 56 percent to 44 percent, with 80,660 votes cast.

It actually won in Bibb, Twiggs and Wilkinson counties, but not by much. The margin of victory in Bibb, the largest of the 11 counties, was just 1,375 votes of 33,629 cast.

But in Houston County, opponents outnumbered supporters 11,474 to 4,330.

At a news conference Wednesday with Bibb County Commission Chairman Sam Hart, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert thanked Bibb County voters for their approval.

“It was just not enough to overcome the adverse vote in other counties,” Reichert said.

Reichert hinted that he wouldn’t mind trying a T-SPLOST again, if authorized. Until then, he said, he wants to keep a pared-down project list in hand for whatever funding can be found.

“You’re just going to have to be more creative, especially in these next two years,” Reichert said.

The T-SPLOST was to have provided millions for a runway extension at Middle Georgia Regional Airport and a Sardis Church-Sgoda Road connector to link the airport with Interstate 75, along with expansion of Bass Road and many other projects.

To keep runway lengthening on the front burner, Reichert said he would look for funding directly from the Federal Aviation Administration. Expanding the runway is important to increase air-cargo and maintenance/repair operations, which bring jobs, he said.

One example of a site that badly needs work is Bass Road, which the T-SPLOST would have poured millions into widening and improving, Hart said.

“With the development that’s going on out there, we’ve got to do something,” he said.

Hart said a partial substitute for the 10-year T-SPLOST could be renewal of the SPLOST when the current one runs out in about six years.

“That certainly is one (funding source) that would be worth consideration, if we extend that,” he said.

State legislators in 2010 authorized a T-SPLOST vote because state and federal gasoline tax receipts were falling. Those federal funds to Georgia may continue to decline, by “perhaps as much as 20 to 30 percent in the next few years,” according to Georgia Department of Transportation Press Secretary David Spear; and the state’s collections will keep going down, too, as fuel efficiency increases.

He and Reichert hoped for a lifeline from Gov. Nathan Deal. They wanted some gubernatorial idea on a reliable funding source other than another try at a T-SPLOST.

In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, however, Deal dashed those hopes. He said he will work with local officials to focus on the “most pressing needs,” but he indicated he has no stomach for another try at a T-SPLOST or to find some other consistent revenue source for transportation projects.

“There will be belt-tightening,” Deal said.

Reichert acknowledged that in two years a T-SPLOST vote may not be practical. He hopes residents of the region come to recognize the drawbacks of not pumping money into transportation infrastructure, he said.

As a penalty written into the T-SPLOST-enabling legislation, local governments in areas where the measure failed will see their required match for remaining state funds jump from 10 percent to 30 percent.

Officials in many smaller counties enthusiastically endorsed the T-SPLOST as their communities’ best, perhaps only, chance to see construction of major regional projects they could never afford on their own, even before the increased matching-fund requirement.

Perry Mayor Jimmy Faircloth, who served on the regional roundtable that developed the T-SPLOST project list, joined the minority in Houston County that voted in favor of it.

One of the projects would have put $6.3 million into the Perry-Houston County Airport to lengthen the runway and expand the terminal. That would have taken the airport “to the next level,” Faircloth said, and improved the county’s ability to lure new industry.

“It would have really made an economic impact,” Faircloth said. “That’s one I’m disappointed about. It may not get done for quite some time now.”

A second project he regrets will not be funded isn’t even in Houston County. The T-SPLOST included $41 million for widening Ga. 96 from I-16 to Bonaire. Faircloth said that would have been significant for Robins Air Force Base and Houston County.

Although Houston voters defeated T-SPLOST by nearly 3-to-1, Faircloth said he does not think the vote reflects a lack of commitment to regional cooperation.

“I think you are looking at two issues,” he said. “I think Houston County is a very big proponent of the regional concept, but I think the citizens of Houston County are adamantly against a tax increase of any kind.”

Houston County Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker, a vocal opponent of the T-SPLOST, also said the vote does not indicate a lack of commitment to regionalism. He said voters simply didn’t want a tax increase. Stalnaker noted that even if Houston’s votes were removed from the tally, the T-SPLOST still would have failed.

He also said the projects listed on the T-SPLOST will get done at some point, including the widening of Ga. 96.

“That’s a state-programmed project,” he said. “It may have some lag time, but it’s going to get done.”

Former Houston County Commission Chairman Ned Sanders, who led a campaign against the T-SPLOST, agreed.

“Most of the projects will get done in due time, they just won’t get done as soon,” he said. “Whether or not time is critical, that’s a judgment question.”

But Spear said while the state will listen to local areas’ top priorities, much of the available funding will be poured into existing infrastructure.

“A lot of it, especially the interstate system, is 50-plus years old now and in need of increasing maintenance,” he said.

To contact writer Jim Gaines call 744-4489. To contact writer Wayne Crenshaw call 256-9725.