Years after Atlanta's population boom, local voters have grown weary of the region's traffic snarls, while at the same time becoming ever more leery of government's attempts to raise taxes in the wake of lingering effects from the housing market collapse and economic recession.
However, voters will be forced to choose between traffic congestion or wallet constriction - barring a major change of heart by the state legislature -when they vote July 31 on the T-SPLOST, the 1-percent transportation-only sales tax that is the key to the state's plan to overhaul transportation funding in Georgia.
What is the T-SPLOST?
First of all, SPLOST stands for special project local option sales tax. The 1 percent sales tax has been used in counties for years to pay for major projects, including new buildings, equipment, parks and roads.
However, roads have historically received a small portion of SPLOSTs, which are passed on a county-by-county basis.
The T-SPLOST works off the same basic principal, expect this is a regional SPLOST that can only be used to pay for transportation (roads, mass transit, airports) projects of regional importance.
The idea is a two-fold one. First, the state is broke. Money for transportation has been slim in Georgia for years because of declining tax revenues and debt payments that are reaching hundreds of million of dollars as a result of former Gov. Sonny Perdue's aggressive road program during the early part of the current century, according to articles in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. State lawmakers have also been hesitant to raise the politically-sensitive gas tax, which is a major source of transportation revenue.
Secondly, individual counties would be hard pressed to raise enough money on their own to fund major road or mass transit projects that can easily cost tens of millions of dollars.
Under the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, the state was divided into 12 regions for purposes of the T-SPLOST; each region will vote independently on its own project list.
However, if the majority of voters in a given region vote for the T-SPLOST, then every county in that region will have to participate. Similarly, if the majority of voters in a region vote against T-SPLOST, then no counties in that region would participate.
Newton County falls into the Northeast Georgia region along with Athens-Clarke, Barrow, Elbert, Greene, Jackson, Jasper, Madison, Morgan, Oconee, Oglethorpe and Walton counties.
If passed, the 1 percent sales tax will be collected for 10 years.
Local pros for T-SPLOST
Obviously, that question will be answered by the voters, but local and state officials and residents have no shortage of opinions.
One benefit for Newton County residents is that they'll actually receive more in taxes than they'll pay out during the 10-year collection period.
According to calculations performed by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, spending in Newton County will attribute around $118 million in sales tax over a 10-year period, accounting for a 2 percent inflation rate.
However, Newton County has specific projects totaling more than $120 million, and it will receive an additional $23.98 million in discretionary transportation funding to be used as local officials see fit.
Newton residents will see a surplus value of more than $26 million, not including $5 million of additional road work in the jointly-owned Stanton Springs industrial park, which is listed under Morgan County's projects.
Hunter Hall, president of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, said he was impressed by the return on investment Newton County would receive. Though the chamber is hesitant to support a tax increase, Hall said chamber officials recognize the importance of investing in transportation infrastructure.
"The chamber supports the T-SPLOST initiative because it gives our local elected officials more control over dollars to be used in our community. Any chance we have to have local control over local tax issues we believes is to our benefit," Hall said.
Because most of the projects are larger in scope, residents who don't regularly use certain roads will see little benefit. The discretionary spending could offset that inequality if local leaders so choose.
Newton County has a heavy emphasis on projects in Covington and western Newton County, because that's where most of the population and traffic congestion is found.
Brown Bridge, Crowell and Salem roads will be widened, along with Covington ByPass Road and Industrial Boulevard in Covington. Those five projects total $113 million.
According to county officials, all of those roads are overburdened. The maximum recommended daily traffic for two-lane highways is 15,000 cars per day, but Salem Road is at 25,000, the Bypass Road at 20,000 and Crowell Road around 16,500. All three roads will be widened to four-lane highways.
The Brown Bridge Road widening project is slated to receive $7 million, though the total cost of the project is listed at $25 million. The additional money is expected to come from a combination of local, state and federal funding. Similarly, the Industrial Boulevard widening will receive $7.8 million in T-SPLOST, but will take $9.79 million to complete.
The only other projects are $6.6 million for Covington Municipal Airport improvements and $225,000 to relocate the intersection of Interstate 20, Ga. Highway 11 and Alcovy Trestle Road.
The key for Newton's projects are to reduce congestion and to increase the ease with which residents can reach major highways, Chairman Kathy Morgan said previously, which will hopefully attract both residential and commercial development.
While the federal government originally wanted to widen Salem Road to six lanes, Morgan said previously that would kill any sense of community and simply make Salem Road a pass-through road.
Thinking more regionally, which is the goal of the T-SPLOST, some Newton County residents could benefit from highway improvements.
Ga. Highway 138, which barely crosses Newton's northern tip, is often used by residents in that part of the county to travel to Monroe, Conyers or Atlanta via I-20. It will be widened in both Rockdale and Walton counties. Morgan said previously Newton County couldn't afford widening its small portion because of the two bridges that would cost nearly a $100 million to replace. The federal government may be able to provide funding for that.
U.S. Highway 441 will be widened south of Monroe, which leads to Milledgeville and eventually onto Interstate 16 which leads to Savannah.
"The transportation sales tax referendum gives Georgia voters the ultimate in local control," Gov. Nathan Deal told sister paper The Gainesville Times.
"First, each region gets a say in whether to move forward with these transportation investments," he said. "Northeast Georgia doesn't have to worry that another part of the state will reap all the benefits. Second, the project list was put together by local officials who know the needs of the area."
County and city officials from each county unanimously approved the final project list for Northeast Georgia.
If passed by voters, the T-SPLOST would increase the state sales tax rate to 8 percent across most of the state.
However, Beth Brown, communications director for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, said previously that Georgia would still have a lower sales tax and overall tax burden than many states.
"This is a great chance to invest in transportation, which we haven't always done," Brown said.
According to the Washington-based Tax Foundation, Georgia had the 19th lowest tax burden in the U.S., by collecting an average of 9.1 percent of taxpayers' income.
The cons of T-SPLOST
While advocates see T-SPLOST as a necessity, there are many arguments against the new funding method.
First and foremost, many residents loathe the addition of new taxes, no matter the argument. Calls for reduced spending in other areas and more efficient use of existing dollars are common refrains. The Georgia Tea Party said the T-SPLOST would be the largest tax hike in state history and could unfairly burden some communities to the advantage of others.
While Newton seems to come out ahead on its share, will voters in other counties be willing to support a measure that sends some of their tax dollars elsewhere?
"Will residents be convinced that the share (of tax money) going into their county is sufficient, that they're willing to pay taxes to benefit other counties, some of which are going to be far away and maybe where they haven't even traveled?" asked Charles Bullock, a noted political scientist at the University of Georgia, posing the question on many officials' minds.
Another argument is that the government has done a poor job maintaining the roads it already has. Chairman Morgan continually preaches that Newton County's current spending on maintenance is unsustainably low.
Morgan said previously that Newton County has around 1,000 miles of roads. She said it would take $30 million to simply bring all the bad roads to fair condition; however, the county will spend only a couple of million dollars on road repairs next year.
"Some of these projects will require large future operating and maintenance costs with no identified long term future funding source to pay for these expenses. How can these expenses be paid without additional large future tax increases?" local Republican William Perugino argued in a recent column in The Covington News.
Finally, some residents are upset by the fact they'll be heavily penalized if they don't approve the T-SPLOST.
Currently, Newton County is required to pay a 20 percent match for state projects.
If Newton County and the entire region pass T-SPLOST, then Newton will only have to provide a 10 percent local match for all other state projects not included on the T-SPLOST list.
If Newton passes T-SPLOST, but the region does not, the county will have to pay a 30 percent match.
If both Newton and the region vote down T-SPLOST, then Newton would have to pay a 50 percent match.
Local governments either have to add the 1 percent sales tax or be on hook for contributing more local money for future road projects.
Learn more about T-SPLOST
The chamber is hosting an informational meeting about T-SPLOST at noon, Wednesday at The Center for Community Preservation and Planning; the meeting will be led by Connect Georgia 2012, the lobbying arm traveling around the state in support of the T-SPLOST initiative.
Seating is limited and respondents must RSVP; chamber members will be given first preference. Private residents are asked to contact the chamber at (770) 786-7510 to see if space is available.
For more information, you can also visit several websites, including the state websites it3.ga.gov and dot.state.ga.us/localgovernment and the lobbying group's website connectgeorgia2012.com.
The Gainesville Times reporter Jeff Gill contributed to this report.