If the governor and the state legislature had done their jobs, we the people wouldn't be deciding July 31 whether to raise the sales tax by one percent for the next 10 years to cover critically needed road projects throughout Georgia's 12 economic development regions. But the so-called "leaders" of the state couldn't bring themselves to do one of the jobs they were put there to do - namely, to provide adequate tax revenues to preserve and enhance transportation infrastructure now strained to the max. Even now, legislative leaders say if the T-SPLOST votes fail, they don't plan further action.
Their active support for the measure they passed doesn't even qualify as lukewarm. The governor can hold a press conference, sure, but his passion can be questioned.
Newton County is one of 12 counties that make up the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission, the others being Barrow, Clarke, Elbert, Greene, Jackson, Jasper, Madison, Morgan, Oconee, Oglethorpe and Walton. It will take 51 percent of the voters in all these counties to pass the T-SPLOST that will affect Newton County. When we vote, we won't be voting on Newton County projects alone, but also local projects in all 11 other counties. We certainly can't assess the projects elsewhere, but only the validity and critical nature of those slated for Newton County.
We are not - repeat, not - part of the 10-county metro Atlanta region, so if you've been reading coverage in the AJC or on Atlanta news stations about the T-SPLOST, don't be misled. They have their own transportation crises that are not ours. We're not voting on whether the metro Atlanta region should raise the sales tax to address needs in Georgia's premier city. In my opinion, however, if the metro Atlanta area doesn't support the T-SPLOST, it will be a black eye for the entire state, a symbol of the inability to unite as a region and a triumph of individual interests over the common good, not a good measure to send.
Newton County's T-SPLOST projects are seven desperately needed road improvements in areas where growth has overwhelmed existing corridors and made others unsafe or unattractive to desired economic development. Projects submitted to the NEGRC for Newton County came from both the county and its municipalities, taken from existing Comprehensive Transportation Plans.
Newton County Commission Chair Kathy Morgan served on the NEGRC selection committee and is well familiar with the almost overwhelming needs in some areas of the county. "If the T-SPLOST for our 12 counties passes," she said, "it will produce $144 million for transportation improvements in Newton County, including $2.3 million in discretionary funds for our municipalities and in the unincorporated county. There's no way we could even contemplate raising the millage rate enough to fund these projects. It would simply be prohibitive." All monies raised in the region will stay in the region, and Newton County's share will be more than what will be raised here.
Four out of five Newton County districts will see major road improvements through the T-SPLOST. "There were no projects submitted for District 1," Morgan said. First-tier projects set for construction between 2013 and 2015 include $6.6 million at the Covington Municipal Airport to improve access off Ga. Highway 142 - seen as an economic development necessity - and $225,000 to relocate the intersection of Alcovy Trestle Road with Highway 11 near the on-ramp to I-20 West to make the confluence of those three routes safer.
Second-tier projects to be built between 2016 and 2019 include $31.7 million for improvements on Crowell Road from Salem Road to I-20 and $34.3 million to widen State Route 162 from Brown Bridge Road to Salem Road. If you don't have to travel these corridors, especially at rush hour, count yourself blessed and pray for those who do.
District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz whose district shows the results of unbridled growth is passionate about passing the T-SPLOST. "It's the fairest method of providing transportation funding. Everyone who spends money in Newton County and who uses our roads will contribute to the funding. Passing the T-SPLOST is crucial to Newton County's economic development."
Third-tier projects are those scheduled between 2020 and 2022, when the T-SPLOST will sunset. The Covington Bypass will be widened for $32.7 million from Ga. Highway 36 to U.S. Highway 278; Brown Bridge Road will be widened for $25 million leveraging $7 million with 2011 SPLOST funds and state funds; and safety improvements of $9.7 million will be made on Industrial Boulevard from Hwy. 278 to Hwy. 142.
Commission Chair Morgan said the budget for all these projects factors in inflation and all state and federal funds that can possibly be leveraged in support of construction. "Roads and bridges in Newton County represent almost $2 billion in replacement value, the most expensive investment we have," Morgan said. "As roads and bridges degrade, the cost of repairing them goes up exponentially. The T-SPLOST provides the opportunity for us to make critical improvements in roads that are failing now, improve safety and ensure our economic viability."
The T-SPLOST has my vote, folks, because there's simply no other choice, as unpleasant as it is. We the people are the only solution to the traffic needs and nightmares we face. If not, who else or what else?
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics.