Voters across a large swath of Georgia's midsection, stretching from Augusta in the east to Columbus in the west, decided Tuesday to tax themselves to improve their regions' roads. Unlike metro Atlanta voters, they determined that the tax's benefits are worth the cost.
While only three of the state's 12 special transportation regions passed so-called T-SPLOSTs, supporters crowed Thursday that the $1.8 billion to be raised over the next decade provides an economic opportunity unavailable to Atlanta, Savannah or Macon.
The reasons for victory are as varied as the regions themselves, but a few trends emerged. Metro Atlanta, if it ever goes the transportation referendum route again, should pay heed, state and local officials say.
The main thread connecting the T-SPLOST winners: All roads are local. Supporters hammered home how this dirt road would be paved or that potholed street would be resurfaced. Large dollops of the new money from the 10-year, 1 percent sales tax will be spent on road projects selected by city and county officials — a bigger local say-so than proposed for metro Atlanta.
Opposition to the sales tax, too, was relatively muted across the Augusta, Columbus and east-central Georgia regions, according to local officials. Tea party, anti-government fervor was low-key, as was the anger of the NAACP that prevailed across metro Atlanta.
In rural South Georgia, you're more likely to know, and trust, your local official. And, unlike the urban-suburban tussle that bedevils metro Atlanta, rural Georgians appreciate the economic and social benefits that neighboring towns afford.
Voters in west Georgia, for example, accepted that Columbus and Muscogee County will reap about half of the $594 million to be raised via the T-SPLOST across the 16-county region.
"There's a strong regional sentiment involved in all this," said Gerald Mixon, planning director for the River Valley Regional Commission, which includes Columbus. "The little counties understand that the employment opportunities available in Muscogee County benefit them. And Muscogee County benefits from all of the business that comes from the surrounding counties, too."
Fifty-four percent of voters passed the T-SPLOST in the Columbus and Augusta regions while 52 percent did across the Heart of Georgia area, which encompasses 17 counties and the towns of Dublin, Jesup and Vidalia.
In metro Atlanta, 63 percent of voters opposed the sales tax increase, which would've raised $7.2 billion. Most North Georgia regions overwhelmingly voted down the T-SPLOST.
Yet even the rural South Georgia regions that opposed the sales tax weren't as adamantly opposed as their northern, more urban brethren. Opposition never topped 60 percent in any of the districts south of Macon.
"The rural parts of the state are very aggressive about economic development, and they take any opportunity to give themselves an advantage," said Chris Clark, president of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, which led the statewide T-SPLOST campaign. "Some of the rural communities heard from their local officials that, individually, they'd have to wait in line forever at DOT to tackle their road projects. With the [T-SPLOST], they could jump to the head of the line."
Low-paying onion, timber and prison jobs predominate in the Heart of Georgia, which should raise $399 million via the referendum. Unemployment is high — 12 percent regionwide — and revenues are low. Voters were told that good roads would lead to new businesses and good jobs.
Billy Trapnell, though, said voters were more amenable to fixing potholes on the two-lane blacktop or paving the dirt road that runs alongside the Candler County Sheriff's Department.
"Our streets are wearing out; we need worlds of resurfacing," said Trapnell, the mayor of Metter. "I kept telling our people, 'Look at your street and determine if it would be worth another penny to get it resurfaced. It's your choice.'"
Every district except for metro Atlanta's was given the opportunity to use 25 percent of the T-SPLOST money as the counties and cities saw fit. (Metro Atlanta would've set aside 15 percent.) The local sweetener proved a potent vote-getter, particularly in the three regions where the referendums succeeded.
Each of the winning regions, though, will harvest additional tax dollars for local road projects. Trapnell said "the key element" was persuading state officials to allow the Heart of Georgia to use the bulk of its tax dollars for local projects (such as county roads) and not regional ones (such as major highways).
In addition, the regions that passed the T-SPLOST will pay only 10 percent of the cost of a maintenance program undertaken with the state Department of Transportation. Regions that didn't pass referendums must come up with 30 percent of the cost.
"Those regions will see great returns on their investment," Gov. Nathan Deal said during Wednesday's groundbreaking for pharmaceutical giant Baxter International in Covington. "Watch them grow. They're going to be able to put on the table the projects that will attract the Baxters of the future."
Voters in Columbus and Augusta also dreamed big. The Columbus region includes an "inland port" — a truck-train distribution center connected by rail to the ports of Savannah and Brunswick — in Cordele. The T-SPLOST sets aside tens of millions of dollars to upgrade U.S. 280 that feeds into the inland port.
The Augusta region's $841 million will be spent four-laning a key downtown thoroughfare, fixing bridges, widening a highway important to manufacturers and improving access to I-20. Downtown Augusta will receive $100 million in transportation improvements, according to Sue Parr, president of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce. The region has 13 counties.
"From the very beginning, this was a very collaborative, thoughtful process about how you look at the region," Parr said. "We were not trying to cobble together projects that don't relate. It really has to be a regional effort."
With the failure of the T-SPLOST in Tuesday's metro Atlanta referendum, state Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers on Thursday said the state should repeal the T-SPLOST law. In an interview with Channel 2 Action News, he acknowledged that three of the state's 12 regions did pass T-SPLOST taxes and said, "Clearly, they're going to go forward with what they have."
He would consider an alternate referendum plan allowing individual counties to band together. He also would support repealing the part of the T-SPLOST law that penalizes regions that rejected the tax, by requiring they pay higher matching funds for some small local road projects.
— Ariel Hart
Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.