More than any other factor, the healthy growth of Newton County will be determined by how well its transportation infrastructure is developed over the next five to 20 years.
A county wide comprehensive transportation study - funded by the Atlanta Regional Commission, with the support of the Newton County Board of Commissioners and aided by The Center for Community Preservation and Planning - has just begun and will continue over the next year and a half.
The study will not only look at the county's main thoroughfares such as Salem Road, Ga. Highway 142 and U.S. Highway 278, but it will also examine possibilities for public transportation and the extension of existing sidewalks/trails systems to encourage greater connectivity.
The study kicked off publicly at a meeting Thursday night at The Center. Approximately 40 Newton County residents, including county commissioners, city council members and one state senator gathered to voice their ideas about how they would like to see the county's transportation system developed.
Tensions were high as residents debated the need to raise taxes in order to fund transportation projects in the county and across the state.
At one point Covington Mayor Sam Ramsey stood up to make an impassioned speech to the gathered crowd and to State Senator John Douglas (R-Covington), who was in attendance. Douglas has been a vocal opponent of various proposals in the Georgia General Assembly to cut taxes by doing away with ad valoreum taxes and decreasing the state sales tax on gasoline.
"It irritates the daylights out of me," Ramsey said of the idea that the state could afford to cut taxes when the Georgia Department of Transportation is currently facing a $7.7 billion shortfall. "That is absolutely ridiculous for anybody in their right mind to say that. Ya'll don't listen to this rhetoric cause that's all it is."
Ramsey added that he sympathized with the BOC, who had to scramble at the beginning of the year to reallocate approximately $20 million from other road projects to the purchase of right of way for the long delayed Salem Road widening project, after GDOT announced that the funding for the project was indefinitely delayed.
District 3 Commissioner Ester Fleming seconded the sentiments of Ramsey.
"We (the BOC) can't raise taxes high enough to take care of the road infrastructure. Funds are being cut. We need more people talking to our state legislatures," Fleming said.
County Engineer Kevin Walter said that by taking matters into its own hands to redirect funding to the Salem Road project, the county had a better chance of seeing more funds allocated to the project in the future by GDOT.
"We have a substantial start, but we have to leverage it to get more money," Walter said.
Newton County resident George Moreland surmised many of the audience's feelings.
"To have adequate infrastructure we have to have higher taxes, there's no escaping it," Moreland said. "Taxes are what we pay for services. If we want services we have to pay taxes."
Thursday night's meeting also focused on the county's need for some form of public transportation.
Kay Lee, a community initiative entrepreneur with The Center, suggested that it was inevitable that commuter light rail would come to the county within the next 20 years, much to the excitement of the gathered crowd.
Ramsey said the city of Covington had already brainstormed where a rail station with enough room for parking could be built and said it would likely be built behind the Kroger shopping plaza on U.S. Highway 278
Douglas however, said that the Georgia legislature currently had no plans to bring light rail through the county.
"At the state level, there has been no discussion of putting a rail line parallel to I-20," Douglas said. "Commuter rail is very long term at the moment."
In addition to covering the entire area of Newton County and its five municipalities, the county's Comprehensive Transportation Plan will extend for several miles outside the boundaries of the county to include parts of Conyers, all of Social Circle and all of Walnut Grove.
The study will assess existing and future transportation needs, establish the county's priorities for mobility, safety, connectivity and accessibility, provide a long-range guide for efficient transportation investments and promote a unified approach to the planning process.