Dougherty County Commssioner John Hayes speaks with SWGA Regional Commission Executive Director Dan Bolinger Friday, April 20.
ALBANY Officials from throughout Southwest Georgia sat in on an informational meeting Friday to learn more about a proposed one-percent transportation sales tax initiative voters will consider this summer.
The meeting was facilitated by the Southwest Georgia Regional Commission and its executive director, Dan Bolinger and featured a lively exchange between Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard and State Rep. Winfred Dukes.
Voters will decide whether to fund the one-percent sales tax during a referendum on July 31. The measure is expected to generate $530 million over the next decade, 75 percent of which has been dedicated to a pre-approved list of regional transportation projects like the widening of Highway 133 from Albany through Colquitt County.
The July vote will be the culmination of a two-year reformation of the state’s transportation system.
With road projects previously funded by the gasoline tax, legislators opted to shift the way the majority of state transportation projects are developed and financed in a way that would give the various regions of Georgia more say in the process.
Under the T-SPLOST law, the state has been divided into 12 regions. In Southwest Georgia, 14 counties make up our region, with Dougherty serving as the anchor.
If a majority of the votes cast on July 31 — 50 percent plus one — are in support of the T-SPLOST, a one-percent sales tax will be added to most purchases for the next 10 years.
No more than 75 percent of that funding, which is expected to generate $530 million, will go to a list of pre-approved, major regional projects. The remaining 25 percent is considered discretionary and will be used on local projects decided by each city and county government.
By law, elected and government officials are prohibited from lobbying for or against the measure directly, leaving the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and regional chamber of commerce organizations as the mechanism used to market and educate the initiative to the public.
Former City Commissioner Henry Mathis urged people to support the sales tax, saying that while it will be painful to pay another sales tax, the future of our region is at stake.
“None of us like tax increases during these hard times,” Mathis said. “But we can ill afford to miss an opportunity to make the sort of infrastructure improvements. We couldn’t afford to do it without the support of the entire region.”
Local businessman Orlando Rambo, who is part owner of the current Transit facility on Oglethorpe Boulevard, urged people not to view the move as a new tax.
“I don’t view this as a tax. I view it as an investment,” Rambo said. “But for this pass, we’ve got to do a good job educating the public and getting the message out.”
But not everyone who attended Friday’s meeting was overly supportive of the measure.
Dukes twice questioned the process and how projects were chosen, pointing to the fact that there were no projects on the list of major regional projects for the people of south and southwest Dougherty County.
“My concern is, as we try and sell this to the community, that when you go into South Albany and specifically Southwest Albany and Dougherty County, there isn’t a single project on the list. So how can I pitch this to these people who weren’t ever considered?” Dukes said.
City Engineer Bruce Maples responded by saying that the list of constrained projects — the major regional projects funded by 75 percent of the T-SPLOST — were developed from the list of longterm projects already listed on the Albany Metro Planning Organization’s list.
Smaller community-based projects — like the ones that would impact Southwest Albany — will be funded under the city and county’s 25 percent discretionary pot.
Dukes then brought forward the idea of a South Albany bridge between the one at Oakridge Drive and the city of Newton and Baker County.
“Oakridge is the busiest bridge we have. To have one in the southern part of the county would help ease traffic on that bridge and connect the people in South Dougherty County,” Dukes said. “Right now, you’re planning a bridge for Clark Avenue that’s less than a mile from all of our other bridges.”
A look at the numbers from the latest studies shows that, contrary to Dukes’ statement, the Oakridge bridge is not the busiest bridge. In fact, it’s the least used — not counting the Broad Avenue bridge which has been closed since 2009.
According to a 2010 study, the average daily traffic on the Oakridge bridge is 22,000 — behind the Oglethorpe Bridge, which was at 26,000, and the Liberty Expressway bridge, which was at 44,000.
Sinyard responded to Dukes statement.
“That’s a great idea, you should’ve brought it before us at the meetings,” Sinyard said.
“I wasn’t invited to the meetings,” Dukes responded.
“They’re open meetings. You represent a lot of the people of Southern Dougherty County, you should’ve come to the meeting and told somebody,” Sinyard said.