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Local GOP sees if penny tax for roads makes sense
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DOT engineer Brad Saxon outlines Georgias 2012 transportation referendum to local leaders and members of the Effingham County Republican Party. - photo by Photo by Paul Floeckher

2012 Transportation Referendum

• What: Proposed one-percent regional sales tax to fund transportation improvements

• When: Voters go to the polls on July 31

• More Information:

Speaking Monday to the Effingham County Republican Party, Georgia Department of Transportation engineer Brad Saxon said he wasn’t there to lobby for support of the penny sales tax for transportation improvements Georgians will vote on in July.

Before outlining the road projects that would be funded by the tax money, Saxon said, "I’m here to educate, not advocate."

Nonetheless, at least one person was won over by the end of the meeting.

"I came tonight with serious questions as to whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing. Looking at the numbers and looking at the projects, it is overwhelmingly positive," said local attorney and former Effingham County GOP chairman Mickey Kicklighter.

If approved on July 31, the measure — known as the Transportation Investment Act (TIA) and also called the T-SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax for transportation) — would establish a one-percent regional sales tax to fund transportation improvements. DOT officials say it would generate an estimated $18.6 billion statewide over 10 years.

A projected $1.6 billion of that would be raised in the DOT’s coastal region, which is comprised of Effingham and nine other counties in the Coastal Regional Commission. Among the Georgia DOT’s 12 regions, only the Atlanta region would generate more money than the coastal region, Saxon said.

"Money raised in the district stays in the district," Saxon said. "Every dollar that’s raised (in the Coastal Region) by this sales tax will be spent in this region."

Similarly, each region will decide on its own whether to pass the sales tax referendum. Although some counties may vote it down, the region’s cumulative popular vote will decide the issue.

"Individual counties cannot opt out," Saxon said. "It doesn’t matter if Effingham votes no, if everybody else (in the region) votes yes —everybody’s in or everybody’s out."

If coastal region voters approve the sales tax, the projects it will fund have been determined.

Each region had a roundtable made up of local officials, who determined the projects to support, the budget for them and their anticipated construction dates. The roundtables hosted forums last year to receive public input before adopting their project lists.

Just as the project lists are set in stone, so are their budgets. Although the tax is projected for 10 years, regions cannot collect more than the maximum amount set by their roundtables.

"If you reach $1.6 billion in year eight, you quit collecting the tax. You don’t collect more than the projection," Saxon said.

The coastal region project list includes five in Effingham County – four of which are phases of construction of the Effingham Parkway, designed to alleviate congestion along Highway 21. The fifth project is an interchange at Interstate 16 and Old River Road, which could be vital to Effingham County since the Industrial Development Authority owns property on both sides of the proposed interchange.

Effingham’s five projects have a total price tag of $144 million; however, not all of that would have to come from TIA revenue. Saxon said that several projects, such as the Old River Road interchange, could be leveraged with federal funds, thereby freeing up TIA money to fund additional projects in the region.

"We’re going to use federal dollars. (The Old River Road interchange) is an interstate maintenance-type project. We’re working on that interchange, so we’re going to take $2 million of TIA money and get $8 million more of federal money," Saxon said.

One member of the audience asked if the state had considered options other than the sales tax, such as raising Georgia’s motor fuel tax. Saxon had stated earlier in the meeting that Georgia has one of the lowest gas taxes in the country, and Kicklighter noted that Georgia is a "donor state" – meaning it pays more in federal gas taxes than it gets back.

"The problem is, all 50 states have two senators. The recipient states are not interested in voting to give up their money," said state Sen. Jack Hill.

Hill and state Rep. Jon Burns were among the local officials to attend the meeting. Hill didn’t give his opinion on the referendum, but he did encourage voters to learn as much as possible about it before heading to the polls on July 31.

"This is an important decision not only for this region, but the whole state," Hill said. "I hope everyone takes the time to understand it."