LEESBURG -- The Georgia Department of Transportation's planning director told Dougherty and Lee County officials here Thursday the pending vote on a special regional 1 percent transportation sales tax will deliver both infrastructure and economic development benefits for the region.
Todd Long told members of both the Dougherty Area Regional Transportation Study Technical Coordinating Committee and the DARTS Policy Committee that the anticipated $530 million in Transportation Improvement Act T-SPLOST collections over the next 10 years, if approved by voters in the region, will provide "a pretty good remedy to a lot of economic issues that plague the region."
"Southwest Georgia has infrastructure and economic development needs," Long told the DARTS committees, made up of elected and appointed Dougherty and Lee officials. "You have a good list of projects that, once approved by the voters, will address both of those needs.
"The General Assembly has passed the Transportation Investment Act, you've gone through the process to get your list of regional projects, and the next step goes to the voters (on July 31). Before then, probably in January or February, you'll find out more about a campaign (to promote the regional T-SPLOST)."
Long emphasized the importance of projects like improvements to the Southwest Georgia Regional Airport and the widening of State Highway 133 from Albany to Valdosta as vital to the future of the region.
"I saw a recent study that determined the economic impact of the 104 airports in Georgia is $62.6 billion, with most of that, of course, coming from the Atlanta airport," he said. "And I can't impress upon you how important the widening of 133 is to this region, especially with talk of BRAC (the military's Base Realignment and Closure commission) starting up again.
"That highway is absolutely essential to the Marine base, which I had an opportunity to tour recently. I had no idea how large and impressive a facility that was."
Dougherty County Commissioner Gloria Gaines, who represents the Dougherty commission on the DARTS Citizens Transportation Committee, questioned Long about the 25 percent of the T-SPLOST funding that will be appropriated to the various cities and counties in the region for individual transportation needs.
With 75 percent of the tax collections earmarked to pay for the various projects approved by a roundtable committee that in Southwest Georgia included the chairmen of the Dougherty and Lee commissions -- Jeff Sinyard and Ed Duffy, respectively -- and the mayors of Leesburg (Jim Quinn) and Albany (Willie Adams), Long pointed out that the remaining 25 percent of collections would be distributed to the various governments for individual transportation projects of the local governments' choosing.
"What those funds are to be used for will be up to the various city and county commissioners," he said. "The money here will be distributed to Dougherty County, to Albany, to Lee County, to Leesburg and to Smithville. The hope is each government will set up the funds much like they do their SPLOST funds with a lot of accountability.
"I would think they'll be bragging about (individual projects) to show citizens what they are doing. There's some chatter going around that some (government representatives) are talking about lowering their millage rate and letting the (25 percent of discretionary T-SPLOST funds) supplement their income. I don't recommend that."
State Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, also cautioned against such usage of the 25 percent funds.
"This issue was discussed at length in the Legislature," he told the DARTS officials. "I would not be surprised if this was a case where one bad situation could ruin it for everyone. The intent was to allow the local governments to use these funds at their discretion to meet specific needs, but I feel certain they'll be under a very watchful eye."
Rynders also said the decision to distribute the discretionary funding on a formula that is based more on centerline miles than population proved to be a big win for rural Georgia. Long said the DOT will use a "1/5 population, 4/5 centerline miles" distribution formula.
"From a rural standpoint, this was one of the sticking points of the bill," Rynders said. "(Without such a formula) how were they going to get rural counties on board for what essentially would have been metro Atlanta's problems? While we're all cognizant of those problems and concerned about them, there had to be incentive for the rural portions of the state.
"(The formula) is a real victory for rural Georgia."
Sinyard, who also chairs the DARTS Policy Committee, said the officials in the region took pains to make sure the T-SPLOST projects list presented to the 14 counties in Southwest Georgia included benefits for the entire region.
"We focused on the big picture -- on projects like 133, which might not be so important to the counties in the western portion of our region -- but we made sure we had projects that would provide a safer transportation system for the entire region," he said. "And we got a buy-in from everybody.
"But for the voters in this region to pass this (T-SPLOST), it's got to make sense for everyone. A penny is still a penny in any economy, and we've got to start planning now for transportation issues that will impact our children and our children's children."
Albany City Commissioner Bob Langstaff asked if there were any financial advantages to repairing the existing Broad Avenue bridge and making it a pedestrian bridge as some have requested.
"Engineers have told us it would take $8.1 million to stabilize the existing bridge and another $1.3 million to add utilities," Albany Engineering Director Bruce Maples said. "And those improvements, which no engineer is anxious to put his stamp on, would only last for 35 years. The estimate for a new bridge is $9.1 million, and that's for a structure that will last for 100 years."
Long said after the meeting that bids on the Broad Avenue bridge project were supposed to be let this week but that issues associated with the project pushed the bid opening up until January.