July 31 transportation tax votes: What's in store outside metro Atlanta

Most metro Atlantans, though, have yet to consider their own referendum, which would raise $7.2 billion for road and transit projects, as much as $8.5 billion after inflation. Few realize that 11 other regions also will vote July 31 on a 1 percent sales tax for roads, roads and more roads.

Supporters say the projects beyond metro Atlanta could prove critical to the state’s economic well-being while affecting people across this region. Tax boosters in Savannah, Rome, Valdosta and places in between push a transportation agenda that promises to foster business development, connect rural communities, boost safety and create construction jobs.

Still, as in metro Atlanta, the referendums face challenges. Many Georgians don’t like taxes. Mistrust of government is high statewide. There’s no guarantee the projects will greatly reduce congestion. And relatively few Georgians realize the vote is just seven weeks away.

The statewide projects, including quicker access to the Port of Savannah and interstate upgrades in Macon, could benefit metro Atlanta travelers and businesses. In Forsyth County, the widening of Ga. 400 might alleviate traffic headed north to the mountains or south into the city.

“If the state of Georgia is an economic engine, then you want all cylinders firing, not just the Atlanta and Savannah cylinders,” said Chris Clark, president of the Georgia Chamber who leads the statewide tax push. “Improving access to industrial parks makes the entire state more competitive.”

Clark faces a skeptical audience.

“I’m sure it will be mismanaged and waste a lot of money,” said Salvatore Salamone, who owns a pizza and pasta restaurant in downtown Cumming. “You can do whatever you want to [Ga.] 400, and it will be exactly the same. You could put in eight lanes, and nothing would happen to the traffic.”

Interstates and more

Two years ago, the General Assembly carved Georgia into 12 regions, and allowed each to hold a referendum this year to decide whether to dedicate an additional penny in sales tax to transportation projects. The tax’s duration: 10 years.

The 10-county Atlanta region would raise $6.14 billion for road improvements, rail projects, express bus service, the Beltline, sidewalks and more. An additional $1.1 billion would be set aside for smaller local projects. Altogether, after inflation is taken into account, the metro region would have $8.5 billion at its disposal.

Metro Atlanta’s amount far surpasses what any other region would raise. The 10-county Coastal region, for example, would get $1.6 billion. The Georgia Mountains region, which includes Ga. 400 upgrades, would raise $1.3 billion.

Mayors and county commissioners from each region came up with project lists. Highlights include:

Widening I-16 in Savannah between I-95 and I-516. The I-95 interchange with Ga. 21 also would get rebuilt. Both projects would ease congestion caused by trucks using the Port of Savannah.

Widening I-75 in Macon. Upgrading the interstate’s interchange with I-16 in Macon also might speed traffic. “Anybody who uses the interstates to get to Macon or Savannah or Florida is going to see improvements in their trip,” said Jason O’Rouke, political director for Connect Georgia, the pro-tax advocacy group pushing the referendums outside metro Atlanta.

Widening Ga. 133 between Albany and Valdosta, a key truck route across the Southwest region.

Trucks and cars headed from Savannah to Atlanta and points north could benefit from a $32 million bypass around Statesboro. Other projects sprinkled across eastern Georgia would aid economically disadvantaged areas. U.S. 301 in the top half of Screven County, for example, would be turned into four lanes to the South Carolina line.

“It will mean more traffic for tourism and the possibility of more economic development and business locating here,” said Ann Perry, who helps run a Welcome Center in Sylvania. “Besides, who notices a 1-cent tax when you buy things?”

Large swaths of South Georgia depend on military bases — Fort Stewart in Hinesville, Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta — for jobs and economic survival. Improving road access to the bases is critical, especially since it’s a factor as Washington soon considers more base closures.

Bigger local slice

The 11 non-Atlanta regions have allocated all but $209 million for road improvements. (In the Atlanta region, 52 percent of the money would go for buses and trains.) Much of the money is targeted for safer travel. Hills, blind curves and driveways that connect with two-lane blacktops pose dangers, especially when drivers race between towns at night. A four-lane road gives drivers twice as much room for error.

Tens of millions of dollars could go toward paving dirt roads, long the bane of many a rural Georgian. A gully-washer in Lowndes County, for example, makes dirt roads impassable and shuts schools.

So Georgia legislators, who knew the tax would be a hard sell, decided that outside of metro Atlanta, one-fourth of the regional tax money would be automatically returned to cities and counties to spend on any transportation project dear to their hearts. (The Atlanta region would set aside 15 percent for discretionary projects.) Lowndes County will use all 25 percent to pave dirt roads, according to O’Rouke with Connect Georgia.

Critics decry the set-asides as slush funds to get otherwise anti-tax citizens to vote yes.

“How do we know how it’s going to be spent?” said Jeanne Seaver, co-founder of the Savannah Tea Party. “There’s too many back-door deals going on and not enough transparency. We’re just so skeptical right now of government and the way they’re spending.”

Clark, the chamber president, said the money is critical for road- and cash-poor counties.

“The 25 percent can be used for truly local projects that, though needed, did not necessarily meet the regional criteria,” he said. “For many local governments, these discretionary funds represent more annual transportation dollars than they have ever had available.”

In our backyard

Projects closer to home could more immediately, and noticeably, help Atlantans. The Northeast region, which includes Athens, is scheduled to receive $988 million, with more than $36 million set aside for Ga. 316 improvements. Those include interstate-styled interchanges to help speed traffic on University of Georgia game days.

Macland Road, a busy commuter thoroughfare connecting Paulding and Cobb counties, would be transformed into four lanes. Paulding is in the Northwest region; Cobb is in Atlanta’s. What happens if one region passes the referendum and the other doesn’t? Scott Greene, director of Paulding’s Transportation Department, said the state has promised to pick up the tab if Macland Road is only partially funded via referendums.

Still, there’s no guarantee newly widened roads would automatically alleviate traffic troubles. Forsyth County, for example, seeks $73 million to add one lane each way along its southernmost stretch of Ga. 400. As drivers travel south from Forsyth County to Fulton County, the highway turns quickly from two to four lanes.

“If you live in Forsyth County, and you think that voting for this tax will make your commute downtown easier, you’re very wrong,” said Bill Evelyn, a tea party member from Suwanee who opposes the referendum. “There is nothing in Fulton County to improve the commute on [Ga.] 400.”

But the opportunity to reach Fulton quicker is worth the penny sales tax jump to Sharon Corio, a restaurateur with many catering jobs in Alpharetta.

“[Ga.] 400 is the biggest pain in the you-know-what,” said Corio, who owns the City Bistro in Cumming. “Traffic here is far worse than New York. Far worse. A [widened] 400 can only help our business.”

Partial funding is an issue for dozens of roadways across Georgia. Evelyn points out that the tax would raise only $40 million of the $73 million price tag for Ga. 400. Todd Long, deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Transportation, said the state has committed to cover the rest of the cost to widen 400 via federal transportation funds and Ga. 400 toll money.

Tax boosters add that sprinkling large chunks of “seed money” for road projects can attract federal grants four times as large. Paulding County, for example, typically spends no more than $7 million a year on road projects.

“We’re not able to tackle a lot of major projects with that amount of money,” said Greene, the county’s transportation director. “You’re looking at going from $7 million to $20 million, plus what’s in the federal program. It’s huge.”

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