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SPLOST road projects have huge price tag

Photo by Carly Farrell

Photo by Carly Farrell

LEESBURG, Ga. -- Of the $24.9 million in special tax funds projected for the six-year life of Lee County's proposed Special-Purpose Local-Option Sales Tax VI, almost half of that total ($10,738,760) is earmarked for roads, streets and bridges.

And while county officials acknowledge that such projects are among the most discussed by taxpayers, there's another reason so much of the money is planned for paving, resurfacing and other such projects.

Cost.

"Ten million dollars sounds like a lot of money -- it is a lot of money -- but when it comes to road and street projects, it doesn't go a long way," Commissioner Bill Williams, a member of the Lee County Commission's Roads Committee, said. "For something like paving dirt roads, the cost right now is around $1 million a mile.

"So what we have to try to do is stretch our available funds as much as we can."

Three road projects that have been deemed crucial to Lee's future growth -- the North Bypass, the Westover Road extension and the Forrester Parkway extension -- are among the projects expected to share the SPLOST VI funds if they are approved by voters in a March 15 referendum.

The North Bypass project would provide a completed alternate route around the city of Leesburg and alleviate traffic congestion in the heart of the city during morning and afternoon school deliveries and pickup.

"It is certainly in the best interest of Lee County and Leesburg to complete this project," Commission Chairman Ed Duffy said. "Simply put, there are 70 buses that come into Leesburg every morning and leave every afternoon with more than 4,000 students on board. There are another 2,500 students brought to our schools by their parents.

"The city of Leesburg's population rises from 2,500 to 9,000 every day, creating horrific traffic congestion. It's become as much a safety issue as it is a traffic issue, and that's why this project is vital to Lee County."

Work will start on the extension, which is funded by SPLOST money and by state funds, this year and is expected to be completed in 2013, the first year that SPLOST VI would kick in. Planning and

Engineering Director Bob Alexander said now is the time to address the project.

"The bypass around Albany was supposed to be a complete circle, but by the time they got ready to complete it, there was too much development," Alexander, who served as Engineering director for the city of Albany before coming to Lee County, said. "We need to get the (North Bypass) done before that area becomes built up."

Williams said $1.5 million of SPLOST VI funds have been earmarked for the Westover extension project that will stretch from Ledo Road to Forrester Parkway and $3.2 million for the east-west Forrester Parkway project that would eventually extend from Oakland Parkway to Palmyra Road.

"Those two projects will enhance commercial development in Lee County, which will be vital to the commission's goal of not increasing property taxes," the Redbone (District 5) commissioner said.

Alexander said the Westover extension is designed to alleviate traffic congestion in both Lee County and the city of Albany, and the governments of both entities have already passed resolutions of support for the project.

"That regional aspect makes it more appealing to the state," he said.

"The project is now at No. 4 on the area's long-range transportation plan, and the three projects ahead of it have already been moved to the transportation improvement plan. If we can get it onto the next TIP, we'll be eligible for federal and state funding.

"That overall project is the big enchilada; it will cost $20 million because we've got to raise the (U.S. 19) bypass. But Lee County is taking the initiative by moving ahead with work on the section between Ledo Road and Fussell Road. Eventually, we hope to extend it to Forrester, which will be a vital east-west connector."

The Forrester extension includes nine miles of highway that Alexander says will help lessen emergency response times and cut traffic on the busy U.S. 19 bypass.

"Cutting congestion on the bypass is vital," he said. "If there was a need to widen it, the cost would run around $300 million, as much as the State Highway 133 project."

While those projects are especially crucial to the teeming southern portion of Lee County, Commissioner Dennis Roland said his district in the northern two-thirds of the county has different issues.

Resurfacing rutted and pothole-plagued roads in the county's poorest district and paving some of the 200 miles of dirt roads is among Roland's priorities.

"The only thing is, there's just not a lot of paving we can do with the funds that will be available," he said. "I think we need to resurface as many of these roads as possible. If we pave more of the dirt roads, it's just going to add to the list that will need resurfacing in five years or so."

Roland, who also serves on the Roads Committee, cast the lone vote against the SPLOST VI project list that will be presented to voters on the referendum. He said his vote was not against SPLOST but against some of the actions favored by the board.

"SPLOST has meant a lot to this county," Roland said. "But there are some things that just aren't being done right. Certainly I don't see a need to approve a conference center or borrow money to finish it. I've only heard of four people in the county who are in favor of it, and those are the four people who sit to my right at the commission table.

"And I'm worried that we're jumping the gun by looking at borrowing $800,000 for a radio tower for public safety to have (an 800-megahertz radio system). I'm not saying we don't need enhanced radio capability, but people I've talked to say we're not going about it the right way. I think we should study this more so that we can get the most benefit for Lee County."

With roughly $5 million in SPLOST VI funds projected to be available for paving, resurfacing and bridge work, Lee officials say they're looking at getting the most impact for the money.

"We learned that we are getting a local improvement maintenance grant that will allow us to resurface Middle Road," Alexander said.

"That's great because we'd set aside $500,000 for that, and now we can use that money for another project."

Public Works Director Mike Sistrunk said the allocation of funding for paving and resurfacing comes through the County Commission. But part of his staff's duties is to create a priority list for resurfacing.

"The commission has asked us to look at the roads in the county and come up with a list of the ones that are most in need of resurfacing," he said. "We don't make a list of resurfacing or paving projects; we make a list of roads that we think needs work the most."

Some of the roads on Sistrunk's resurfacing wish list include Airport, Ledo, Old Stage, Northampton, Oakland Parkway, Thundering Springs, Lover's Lane, Lumpkin, Century and New York. That list alone covers 37.6 miles.

"We have others -- Livingston, Old Leslie and Crotwell -- that people have been pushing to pave, but that's really a decision commissioners will have to make," Sistrunk said. "There is some bridge work on Old Smithville Road that I'd like to see done, too, but again that's up to the commission."

Some county residents who oppose SPLOST have said more would get done without the 1 percent special tax, including lower overall taxes in the community. Lee officials vehemently refute such claims.

"I would like to emphasize that at least 85 percent of the total SPLOST VI projects will have to be funded by the county, regardless of the outcome of the SPLOST vote, because of their necessity," Williams said. "Without this special tax, we would have to look at funding from ad valorem or property taxes, which would not be popular."

(NEXT: Infrastructure projects.)