Voters in Newton County, the Northeast Georgia Region and across Georgia struck down T-SPLOST Tuesday, leaving leaders to look at what went wrong and what to do next.
The 1-percent transportation-only sales tax was talked about by many leaders as essential to fixing transportation problems throughout the state, but now that it hasn't passed, many people are asking what's next.
The answer appears to be funding projects as they can, as legislators haven't seemed keen on upping the gas tax.
Regionally, the plan would have paid for $987 million worth of projects between the years of 2013-2022 in Newton and Athens-Clarke, Barrow, Elbert, Greene, Jackson, Jasper, Madison, Morgan, Oconee, Oglethorpe and Walton counties.
Newton County Board of Commissioner Chairman Kathy Morgan wasn't happy T-SPLOST failed, but she could understand why it didn't.
"I am disappointed that the projects approved for Newton County will not be completed; however, I understand the financial strain an additional one cent sales tax would put on people. The people have made their voice heard loud and clear. I respect their opinion," Morgan said.
Morgan said she thought T-SPLOST didn't pass because the program was complicated and the state didn't educate the voters on the public issues.
"In counties such as Newton where most of the public notice comes from Atlanta TV stations, there was much confusion. Most people thought the penny sales tax in suburban counties would support projects in metro Atlanta, I don't think they realized the tax paid in Newton County would pay for projects in Newton County," she said.
Morgan said there were many transportation projects important for Newton County, and she hoped the state would find a solution to help the county finish those.
"Four of the projects chosen for Newton County were critical for safety and operations. The other two stimulated economic development for a total cost of approximately $164 million. The cost to improve and widen roads is one of the largest expenses considered by any county. It will be difficult to complete these projects without additional funding sources such as T-SPLOST or federal and state dollars," Morgan said. "If we do not move forward on maintenance and improvements, we become stagnate and our infrastructure will deteriorate. We are already beginning to see this effect within our county. T-SPLOST may not have been the right tool, but it was a positive step to find a solution that included local involvement. If we do not try to find a solution for our transportation needs, all of Georgia is doomed to failure."
As far as moving forward as a state, Georgia Department of Transportation Communications Officer for District 2 Cissy McNure said many road projects would take longer to complete.
"Georgia DOT will continue to look for ways to be more efficient in the way we implement our projects and we will continue to seek viable and sustainable transportation solutions," McNure said. "The needs are real, and they become greater with each passing year. Transportation projects will most likely be implemented at a slower schedule and pace. Many projects will remain unfunded."
While T-SPLOST failed, but the fact remains that maintenance on roads and interstates is still needed.
"We face a shortfall of some $500 million for just the most basic bridge maintenance and more than 1,000 structurally deficient bridges in Georgia need hundreds of millions more dollars to replace or repair. Our interstate highway system is more than 50 years old in most places and in constant need of rehabilitation. These require several hundreds of millions of dollars in critical work, but it is work we have had to defer because we do not have the funds. We also face at least a $50-$60 billion funding shortfall for transportation projects we need to build during the next 30 years. We must find a sustainable way to fund this investment," McNure said.
Gov. Nathan Deal addressed T-SPLOST not passing during the groundbreaking ceremony for Baxter International Wednesday morning and said the voters have spoken and its now time for Georgia leaders to take a closer look at budgets to solve transportation problems.
"I think that we respect their opinion. We will do what we have always done - that is to make the best use of the taxpayer's dollars that are available to us," Deal said. "I think it will require us to reprioritize some of our projects that are currently being considered. We're going to have to take a sharp pencil and eliminate every unnecessary expenditure."
Deal also released a press release on Wednesday about T-SPLOST not passing. He said he would work with state and local officials to use their resources on the most important projects.
State Rep. Doug Holt and Morgan seemed confident in Deal's response of helping leaders in Georgia find ways to finish transportation projects, and Holt looked forward to a healthy discussion on which projects to prioritize.