Among the most hotly debated questions: A transportation infrastructure referendum that would levy a penny sales tax in 12 districts, potentially raising billions of dollars to help pay for hundreds of infrastructure projects across the state during the next decade.
Supporters say the projects would add jobs, reduce congestion around Atlanta and fix aging sidewalks and bridges in rural communities. The plan has been endorsed by Republican state leaders, including Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, in addition to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, a Democrat.
Critics blast the plan — the first statewide referendum in Georgia history — as not only the heftiest tax proposal in state history, but as a false strategy that they say addresses neither sprawl nor smart growth. The showdown pits power and money against an unlikely grassroots coalition, and could have economic, legal and political implications.
Supporters are bankrolling an $8 million ad campaign to push the referendum. Opponents have spent little but say they aren’t the ones who need to fund their case.
“If we can’t trust them to spend our tax dollars wisely now, why are we going to give them more?” said Georgia Tea Party Patriots state coordinator Debbie Dooley, who opposes the tax. “They’re trying to sell voters a pipe dream.”
If passed in all 12 regions, the tax would generate more than $18 billion to pay for transportation projects statewide during the next decade. But the referendum is really a dozen separate regional elections.
The vote is all-or-nothing in each multi-county region. If a majority in a region votes for the referendum, it passes there — even if other regions defeat it. So two regions could approve it and 10 could reject it, and referendum money would still flow to those two regions that voted “yes.” Regions that do not pass the referendum get nothing. Revenues would not be shared across regions.
Early voting in the primary election began Monday and ends July 27.
Rome and Floyd County officials were joined by U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., this week in supporting the regional transportation special purpose, local option sales tax.
“I personally plan to vote in favor of the TSPLOST in my hometown of Moultrie because I believe it will create jobs for Southwest Georgia and make a very rural part of the state more attractive for economic development,” Chambliss said. “I think Georgians should make up their own minds and vote their conscience on the TSPLOST referendum on July 31, based on the facts for their region.”
Rome Mayor Evie McNiece said that because the state will require local governments to fund their share of the projects even if the tax fails to pass, local officials are in a tricky position. She said she hasn’t considered where those funds will come from if the TSPLOST doesn’t pass.
“It’s not something that we’ve come up with,” said McNiece. “It’s so terribly hard to even think about another tax. It’s not anything that locally we really want to have, but it’s coming from the state, and in order to keep up with our projects and keep up with our road paving, necessary repairs and improvements, they’ve given us no choice.”
Floyd County Commission Chairman Irwin Bagwell said the projects would get done even if the vote fails, but not as soon as they would if the vote succeeds. A failure means the quality of area roads will suffer, he said.
“We’ll probably patch more roads than put pavement down (if the vote fails). If we had the funding, of course, we’d do more paving, but we’ll probably do more patching if it doesn’t pass,” said Bagwell, who pointed to the Ga. 101 reconstruction and Ga. 140 widening projects as work that needs to be done sooner rather than later.
Commission John Mayes said the county would make due if the TSPLOST does not pass, but he noted that because the regular SPLOST failed earlier this year, this vote is that much more important.
“We had hopes to be able to shore up some items, basically expend some money on items out of that regular SPLOST, like repair some roads and stuff, said Mayes. “With the TSPLOST, I think it’s very important, important to Floyd County. I just can’t stress how important it is.”
The projects for Chattooga County are badly needed, said Commissioner Jason Winters. There are two bridges in that county that must be replaced, and the transportation tax would be the surest way to make sure those projects are funded soon, he said.
Said Winters: “There is not a Plan B, and that’s what is difficult, as we’re needing to get these projects completed.”
Northwest Georgia Proposed TSPLOST
Total: $1.4 billion
Length: 10 years
Regionwide: $18 million
Transit operations, Program management costs.
Reconstruction of Ga. 101 to Polk County line; Ga. 140 widening from U.S. 27 to Ga. 53; Discretionary funds: $36.3 million.
I-75 interchange reconstruction at Cass-White Road; Douthit Ferry Road improvements; Emerson Old Alabama Road widening; Relocation of Ga. 20 from I-75 to Ga. 61/U.S. 411; Richards Road railroad crossing improvements; Ga. 140 widening from Ga. 53 in Floyd County to U.S. 41; Stamp Creek Road at U.S. 411 intersection improvements; U.S. 411 Connector; Widen U.S. 41 from Main Street to Ga. 61; Discretionary funds: $39.7 million.
Taliaferro Springs Road bridge replacement; York Road bridge replacement; sidewalk construction and repairs (6 projects); Ga. 48 passing lanes; Discretionary funds: $21.6 million.
North Wall Street improvements; South Calhoun Bypass; intersection improvements at Ga. 225, Ga. 136 and Pine Chapel Road; Ga. 3/U.S. 41 widening; Ga. 53 widening; Discretionary funds: $24.2 million.
Marquette Road improvements; Reconstruction of Ga. 101 to Floyd County line; Discretionary funds: $22.1 million.
Crow Gap Road bridge; Euclid Road bridge; Glass Mill Road bridge; Hog Jowl Road bridge; Five Points Road/Osburn School Road intersection improvement; Johnson Road improvements; Old Lee School Road bridge; Ga. 341 sidewalks; Vulcan Road bridge; Wilson Road Connector to Tennessee state line; Discretionary funds: $29.7 million.
Candy Lane Extension; Dietz Road widening; Mack Smith Road widening and enhancements; Mineral Avenue widening; South Cedar Lane widening; Ga. 151 passing lanes, U.S. 41 milling at CSX underpass; Discretionary funds: $19.8 million.
New interchange on Interstate 59 North; Discretionary funds: $10.4 million.
Airport Road improvements; Dawnville Road widening; East Morris Street improvements; Glenwood Avenue, Hawthorne Street and Tyler Street turn lanes; Hill Road improvements; I-75 ramp improvements; I-75 interchange reconstruction; I-75 roundabout; Ga. 2 improvements; Ga. 201 at Ga. 2 intersection improvements; Ga. 201 realignment at U.S. 41; Ga. 201 widening; Ga. 71 widening; Underwood Road improvements; Veterans Drive extension; Discretionary funds: $37.2 million.
Macland Road widening; Fiber optic traffic monitoring system and traffic control center; Ga. 61 improvements; U.S. 278 widening; West Dallas bypass; Xpress regional commuter service; Discretionary funds: $43.3 million.
Old Highway 76 reconnection, Passing lanes on Ga. 60 Spur; Ga. 5 widening; Discretionary funds: $17.3 million.
John Teem Road Connector; Ga. 282 realignment; Ga. 52 Ellijay North Bypass; Discretionary funds: $17.7 million.
Pedestrian and bike improvements on Business 27 South, Ga. 100 and Ga. 120; Ga. 120 West improvements; U.S. 27 railroad grade separation; U.S. 78 improvements; Wall Street/U.S. 78 intersection improvement; Discretionary funds: $19.3 million.
Bridge replacement at Dennis Mill Road and Rock Creek; Chestnut Street and Old Federal Road realignment; U.S. 411/U.S. 76 and Jackson Lake Road intersection improvement; Phase II bike lanes; Ga. 225/Spring Place Bypass; Ga. 225 roundabout; Ga. 225 improvements at Fox Bridge Road; Ga. 225 Phase II; Ga. 286 improvements at Cobb Road and Tom Gregory Road; Discretionary funds: $17.1 million.
Camp Road extension; Ga. 515 improvements; Ga. 53 Business improvements; Discretionary funds: $15.3 million.
Source: Northwest Georgia Regional Commission
Associate Editor Doug Walker and Associated Press writer Errin Haines contributed to this report.