If the Effingham Parkway is going to be built, a former state Senate leader said Wednesday, then voters will have to pass the transportation special purpose local option sales tax next week.
Eric Johnson, the former president pro tem of the state Senate and 2010 candidate for governor, espoused the benefits of the T-SPLOST to Effingham Chamber of Commerce members. He urged their support of the initiative, which is on the ballot for the July 31 primary.
“I don’t think there has been enough of an education to tell people what the problem really is,” he said. “People think there is a lot of money there and it’s all wasted, and it really isn’t.”
In order for the T-SPLOST to go into effect for the 10-county region — which stretches from Screven to Camden and includes Effingham — the measure must receive a majority of affirmative votes from the total ballots cast. Even if T-SPLOST does not pass in one county or even multiple counties and it still garners more than 50 percent of the votes throughout the region, it will go into effect.
However, if it passes in one or more counties but fails to achieve a majority across the region, the T-SPLOST won’t go into effect. And Johnson said, there is no “plan B” to fund the projects on the T-SPLOST list.
“We have a problem, and we don’t have a solution as far as money,” Johnson said. “Money is not going to come raining down from Atlanta or Washington to solve this problem.”
Currently, road and bridge construction in Georgia is funded through the motor fuel tax. Those receipts are shrinking, Johnson said, as people are driving less, using less gasoline, and also are driving vehicles that have better mileage. He recalled when he was a young man, the Volkswagen Bug was the hybrid of that era.
“Now my SUV gets better mileage than those Bugs did,” he said. “Every year, your mileage in cars is getting better and better.”
Of Georgia’s current intake from the motor fuel taxes, 50 percent of the money is devoted to maintenance, Johnson pointed out. Another 25 percent goes to debt.
“So 75 percent of our revenue is gone without building a new road or doing anything to improve safety,” he said. “So we’ve got a money issue.”
Johnson also expects a severe cut in federal transportation dollars, especially if fiscal realities prevail in Washington, D.C.
“We’re all aware, no matter who wins the presidency, there is a day of reckoning coming,” he said, “and somebody is going to have do something very soon. The expectation is that in two years we will a 25 percent cut in federal transportation funding. That’s a big deal.”
The state DOT’s backing from the state general fund fell from $24.3 million in fiscal year 2009 to $10.3 million for FY10. Those revenues go to support intermodal programs such as airports, transit and rail. Federal funding for state transportation went from just over $2 billion in FY09 to less than $1.5 billion in FY11.
Georgia’s general fund budget for FY13 is $19.3 billion, up from $18.5 billion for FY12. The T-SPLOST is expected to raise $19 billion for transportation projects over its 10-year life span. In the coastal region, which includes Effingham, it is projected to take in $1.6 billion in 10 years.
From that, 75 percent will go toward the list of projects developed and approved by a regional roundtable. Those projects include all four phases of the Effingham Parkway and the reworking of the interchange at I-95 and Highway 21. The remaining 25 percent will be divided among the counties for local uses and can go toward such things as beautification projects or road paving.
“It’s a wider availability use for the local officials to have,” Johnson said.
Johnson said the penny tax is expected to create 43,000 jobs in the Coastal Empire and 425,000 in the state, if it passes.
There also are no viable options to replace the money a T-SPLOST is expected to provide, Johnson added. To make up for absence of the sales tax, Georgia would have to increase its gasoline tax by 25 cents a gallon. The state has one of the lowest gasoline taxes in the nation, but Johnson didn’t think Georgians would want to pay that much more for each fill-up.
“We kick the can down the road,” he said. “That’s what we’ve seen in Washington for far too long. Doing nothing is not an option.”
Cutting spending elsewhere in the state budget to make up the difference also will not be palatable, Johnson said. Toll roads, used to build such projects as the Torras Causeway to St. Simons Island and Georgia 400 from Atlanta to its northern Fulton County suburbs, isn’t a viable option, Johnson continued. Toll roads also are unpopular.
“We could cut education and health care to fund transportation,” he said, “but that’s not a good use of where we are. It’s an option, but not a viable one. You could raise taxes, but that’s not going to happen.”
A taxing problem
An avowed conservative, Johnson is no fan of higher taxes. But he is backing the one-cent sales tax that will be directed toward transportation projects. He understands the objection the Tea Party has lobbied toward the T-SPLOST.
“They’re frustrated with Washington and government in general,” he said. “As a Tea Party member, I want to take things into my hands. This is the best solution. And this is what I think needs to be happening to fix our long-term future.”
Johnson said making the argument for the T-SPLOST usually wins people over. But he admits it is still a tough sell, especially as anti-tax sentiment simmers and grows.
Money raised through the sales tax stays within the region, Johnson pointed out, even though some counties may raise more than others.
“I vote for local control,” he said. “There is no bureaucracy. Dollars for infrastructure is a valid, conservative approach. That’s a valid function of government.”
Johnson also said he’s more in favor of consumption taxes — where those who have spent more and have more to spend bear more of the burden.
“I prefer to be taxed on how much I can buy and afford,” he said. “It’s the fairest — everybody pays that tax. Herman Cain calls this the transportation fair tax. If you’re going to pay tax, this is the best way to do it.”
What Johnson also likes about the T-SPLOST is its accountability factor. A citizens review panel will be set up in each district that approves the tax, and the panel will take a look at the progress of each project on the list.
“I hate taxes like anyone else,” he said. “In 17 years in the General Assembly, I never voted for a tax increase. But I have voted for taxes when they’ve been put in front of me for a specific project, with a strong accountability and for a limited time frame. I know where it’s going, when it’s going to end and what they’re going to do with it. I think we all agree that’s what we wish all taxes were like.”
Opposition to the initiative is expected to be strongest in Atlanta and metro Atlanta. While the Georgia Chamber of Commerce has spearheaded a statewide push for its passage — its Connect Georgia 2012 was established to promote voting in favor of the T-SPLOST — a group called the Transportation Leadership Coalition out of Roswell has its own Web site. Called Traffic Truth, at www.traffictruth.net, the Web site was set up to rally supporters to defeat the T-SPLOST.
Other factors appeal to Johnson
There also is a sunset to the extra penny tax, with the T-SPLOST to expire after 10 years. The tax can be renewed, but that would have to be up to the voters, Johnson pointed out.
“One of the criticisms you hear is, once you pass these things, they never go away. If they don’t go away, it’s usually because your local officials have been delivering on what they promised. But it can be beat — just ask Glynn County.
“There really isn’t a plan B, other than to raise taxes.”
In order for T-SPLOST to pass in the Coastal region, Bryan and Effingham counties likely will have to vote strongly in its favor, according to Johnson.
“And there is no plan B,” he said. “There is no way Effingham County on its own can build Effingham Parkway. The money is getting tighter and tighter. As money comes back into this state, it’s going to go into education and health care.”
Of 75 projects to be completed in the Coastal region under the T-SPLOST, 63 are expected to be funded fully by the sales tax. Twelve others will be accomplished with a combination of T-SPLOST and federal aid.
Effingham and Bryan also stand to benefit greatly from its passage, Johnson said. Chatham County projects that could impact Effingham and Bryan drivers the most are widening of I-16 from I-95 to I-516, a new interchange at Highway 204 and King George Boulevard and reconstruction of the I-95/Highway 21 interchange in Port Wentworth.
Chatham County, Johnson said, also benefits from having the Effingham Parkway built. There also are more than 3,000 bridges in the state that are either obsolete or are structurally deficient, Johnson added, that need replacing.
“So we can’t keep up with job growth, we can’t keep up with safety needs, we can’t keep up with the mobility we want,” he said. “If the Savannah harbor gets deepened, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Truck traffic could double in four to five years. That opens the door for more jobs and more manufacturing jobs, and we’ve got to be ready for it.”
Tourists and visitors are expected to carry as much as 40 percent of the T-SPLOST weight in the Coastal region, though Johnson said he believes that estimate is a little high. Still, he believes the Coastal area will be tops or just behind in Atlanta in getting the most non-local sales tax dollars.
Johnson said he’d rather pay the sales tax now to provide for roads in the future, rather than have his children and grandchildren bear the cost for safer roads and improved transportation.
“Georgia was built by transportation,” he said. “It was built by leaders who looked ahead. Wise leaders looked far ahead and said we need to build the infrastructure it takes to have good jobs and a good economy. Now it’s our turn to make that investment.”