T-SPLOST failed; so now what?

The Covington News - - Front Page - DANIELLE EVER­SON deverson@cov­news.com

Vot­ers in New­ton County, the North­east Ge­or­gia Re­gion and across Ge­or­gia struck down T-SPLOST Tues­day, leav­ing lead­ers to look at what went wrong and what to do next.

The 1-per­cent trans­porta­tion-only sales tax was talked about by many lead­ers as es­sen­tial to fix­ing trans­porta­tion prob­lems throughout the state, but now that it hasn’t passed, many peo­ple are ask­ing what’s next.

The an­swer ap­pears to be fund­ing projects as they can, as leg­is­la­tors haven’t seemed keen on up­ping the gas tax.

Re­gion­ally, the plan would have paid for $987 mil­lion worth of projects be­tween the years of 2013-2022 in New­ton and Athens-Clarke, Bar­row, El­bert, Greene, Jack­son, Jasper, Madi­son, Mor­gan, Oconee, Oglethorpe and Wal­ton coun­ties.

New­ton County Board of Com­mis­sioner Chair­man Kathy Mor­gan wasn’t happy

T-SPLOST failed, but she could un­der­stand why it didn’t.

“I am dis­ap­pointed that the projects ap­proved for New­ton County will not be com­pleted; how­ever, I un­der­stand the fi­nan­cial strain an ad­di­tional one cent sales tax would put on peo­ple. The peo­ple have made their voice heard loud and clear. I re­spect their opin­ion,” Mor­gan said.

Mor­gan said she thought T-SPLOST didn’t pass be­cause the pro­gram was com­pli­cated and the state didn’t ed­u­cate the vot­ers on the pub­lic is­sues.

“In coun­ties such as New­ton where most of the pub­lic notice comes from At­lanta TV sta­tions, there was much con­fu­sion. Most peo­ple thought the penny sales tax in subur­ban coun­ties would sup­port projects in metro At­lanta, I don’t think they re­al­ized the tax paid in New­ton County would pay for projects in New­ton County,” she said.

Mor­gan said there were many trans­porta­tion projects im­por­tant for New­ton County, and she hoped the state would find a so­lu­tion to help the county fin­ish those.

“Four of the projects cho­sen for New­ton County were crit­i­cal for safety and op­er­a­tions. The other two stim­u­lated eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment for a to­tal cost of ap­prox­i­mately $164 mil­lion. The cost to im­prove and widen roads is one of the largest ex­penses con­sid­ered by any county. It will be dif­fi­cult to com­plete these projects with­out ad­di­tional fund­ing sources such as T-SPLOST or fed­eral and state dol­lars,” Mor­gan said. “If we do not move for­ward on main­te­nance and im­prove­ments, we be­come stag­nate and our in­fra­struc­ture will de­te­ri­o­rate. We are al­ready be­gin­ning to see this ef­fect within our county. T-SPLOST may not have been the right tool, but it was a pos­i­tive step to find a so­lu­tion that in­cluded lo­cal in­volve­ment. If we do not try to find a so­lu­tion for our trans­porta­tion needs, all of Ge­or­gia is doomed to fail­ure.”

As far as mov­ing for­ward as a state, Ge­or­gia Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Of­fi­cer for Dis­trict 2 Cissy McNure said many road projects would take longer to com­plete.

“Ge­or­gia DOT will continue to look for ways to be more ef­fi­cient in the way we im­ple­ment our projects and we will continue to seek vi­able and sus­tain­able trans­porta­tion so­lu­tions,” McNure said. “The needs are real, and they be­come greater with each pass­ing year. Trans­porta­tion projects will most likely be im­ple­mented at a slower sched­ule and pace. Many projects will re­main un­funded.”

While T-SPLOST failed, but the fact re­mains that main­te­nance on roads and in­ter­states is still needed.

“We face a short­fall of some $500 mil­lion for just the most ba­sic bridge main­te­nance and more than 1,000 struc­turally de­fi­cient bridges in Ge­or­gia need hun­dreds of mil­lions more dol­lars to re­place or re­pair. Our in­ter­state high­way sys­tem is more than 50 years old in most places and in con­stant need of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion. These re­quire sev­eral hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in crit­i­cal work, but it is work we have had to de­fer be­cause we do not have the funds. We also face at least a $50-$60 bil­lion fund­ing short­fall for trans­porta­tion projects we need to build dur­ing the next 30 years. We must find a sus­tain­able way to fund this in­vest­ment,” McNure said.

Gov. Nathan Deal ad­dressed T-SPLOST not pass­ing dur­ing the ground­break­ing cer­e­mony for Bax­ter In­ter­na­tional Wed­nes­day morn­ing and said the vot­ers have spo­ken and its now time for Ge­or­gia lead­ers to take a closer look at bud­gets to solve trans­porta­tion prob­lems.

“I think that we re­spect their opin­ion. We will do what we have al­ways done — that is to make the best use of the tax­payer’s dol­lars that are avail­able to us,” Deal said. “I think it will re­quire us to repri­or­i­tize some of our projects that are cur­rently be­ing con­sid­ered. We’re go­ing to have to take a sharp pen­cil and elim­i­nate ev­ery un­neces- sary ex­pen­di­ture.”

Deal also re­leased a press re­lease on Wed­nes­day about T-SPLOST not pass­ing. He said he would work with state and lo­cal of­fi­cials to use their re­sources on the most im­por­tant projects.

State Rep. Doug Holt and Mor­gan seemed con­fi­dent in Deal’s re­sponse of help­ing lead­ers in Ge­or­gia find ways to fin­ish trans­porta­tion projects, and Holt looked for­ward to a healthy dis­cus­sion on which projects to pri­or­i­tize.

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