ALBANY, Ga. — No matter what ballot voters take Tuesday, they’ll be faced with a question that is arguably the single most important for this region this election cycle:
Should a 1 percent sales tax be levied for transportation projects in Southwest Georgia?
The question is simple, but the context behind it, and the ramifications to the local and regional economy and the future of this part of the state, are not.
The T-SPLOST has its roots in a determination by state legislators that the Georgia Department of Transportation’s chief funding mechanism, a fuel-based tax levied on the number of gallons sold, was decreasing to the point that it could not sustain the transportation project needs of the state.
As fuel consumption has decreased with the increase in more fuel efficient vehicles, higher overall gas prices and decreases in traveling because of the economy, so have GDOT’s revenues.
In 2010, a bill passed by the General Assembly established a guide that would eventually lead to a public vote on a new funding mechanism for transportation projects, one based on the creation of a 1 percent sales tax earmarked specifically for regional transportation projects.
That law called for the formation of regional roundtables comprising elected officials from the cities and counties in each region who would create a wish list of regional projects in what was deemed to be an unconstrained project list.
That list was then compared against planned Georgia Department of Transportation projects and capped using projections by the state economist. The numbers suggested that 14 Southwest Georgia counties that comprise District 10 could generate $530 million in sales tax revenue with the 1 percent tax over the next 10 years.
That constrained list of projects is what will be constructed if a simple majority of voters in the Southwest Georgia district approve the T-SPLOST referendum Tuesday.
T-SPLOST is backed by Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, and is being pushed by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce as a measure that is needed to spur economic development and make Georgia competitive with other states as it works to recruit new industries.
Cagle, specifically, has pointed to the fact that Georgia is 49th in the nation on transportation spending as evidence that the funding mechanism for transportation needs is broken.
But a 2011 report by the Pew Center of the States shows that Georgia is one of 13 states that was excelling in nearly every aspect of transportation, including safety, jobs and commerce, mobility, access and infrastructure preservation.
Economic development is tied to infrastructure spending, however, as noted in a separate report.
In an April 2009 study analyzing the impact of President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute pointed to investment in infrastructure, including transportation, as a viable way to spur economic growth.
“Each dollar of infrastructure investment provides on net about $1.59 in additional economic growth, making it about 33 percent more effective than generic tax cuts and 10-15 times more effective than many variants of business tax cuts,” the report states. “In short, infrastructure spending, broadly speaking, is about as good a form of economic stimulus as there is.”
Opponents to the measure say that increasing taxes will stymie growth, not increase it, and will make Georgia — and specifically the regions that pass the T-SPLOST — less appealing to prospective companies.
A study done by Beacon Hill Institute of Public Policy Institute at Suffolk University in Boston in which a proposed increase in sales tax in Ohio for schools was examined, reported that increasing the sales tax from 5 to 6 percent in Ohio would lower employment by 0.8 percent.
Opponents to the measure have also questioned oversight of the sales tax revenues and expressed concern over how closely the 25 percent discretionary funds that will be handed to local governments for local projects will be monitored.
Proponents counter that the law calls for a local review board to be appointed by the Cagle and House Speaker David Ralston to audit how the regional project funds are spent each year and that local projects are held to the same auditing procedures and transparency that traditional construction projects handled by local governments are.
For this region, the top priority is the four-laning of Georgia Highway 133 from Dougherty County through Southwest Georgia to Lowndes County. It’s a project billed by proponents as one that is important to the sustainibility of Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany by providing a direct, four-lane link south to Interstate Highway 75.
The regional project list includes construction of a Westover Boulevard extension under the Liberty Expressway that will connect to Ledo Road, along with a new bridge and extension of Clark Avenue from East Albany into the central business district.