Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, told The Albany Herald Editorial Board that passing the referendum for the proposed T-SPLOST is necessary for the economic expansion of Albany’s 14-county region.
ALBANY, Ga. — Regions that fail support a proposed 1 percent sales tax addition to fund transportation projects may find their communities in park economically while other regions accelerate with improved transportation infrastructure.
While it’s unusual for a business-oriented organization like the Georgia Chamber of Commerce to promote the idea of a tax increase, it makes sense in the case of the regional transportation planning, Chris Clark, president and CEO of the Georgia chamber, said Tuesday in a meeting with The Albany Herald Editorial Board.
“Historically, we’ve been anti-tax,” Clark noted, “and I think we’ve done a pretty good job at that, but it really does fall on the business community to step forward and show some leadership around the state.”
Each of the state’s 12 transportation regions will vote on referendums for their regions on whether to approve a T-SPLOST, or Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Tax. Each region will vote independently to accept or reject the new tax within its area, with all the revenue generated over the 10-year life of the tax earmarked to be spent on transportation projects only within that region.
“University of Georgia economists are talking about another eight years before getting back to pre-recession job levels,” Deborah Bowie, senior director of public policy for the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, said at the Editorial Board meeting, “so (the Albany chamber) looks at this as an opportunity to make infrastructure improvements now. Fast forward eight years and other regions have invested and we haven’t. You can’t win the game if you’re not in it.”
Region 10 includes Dougherty, Lee, Terrell, Worth, Baker, Calhoun, Early, Mitchell, Miller, Colquitt, Seminole, Decatur, Grady and Thomas counties. The Georgia Transportation Alliance says the T-SPLOST for the region would generate more than $530 million and create 14,320 jobs in the region. If all 12 regions pass their respective taxes, $19 billion would be raised over the 10 years.
Clark is on a campaign run throughout the state to garner support for the new tax, speaking to newspaper editorial boards, civic clubs and local chambers of commerce. In addition, The Georgia Chamber and its affiliate, the Georgia Transportation Alliance, plan to push their message of enhanced economic development on websites, in print ads and on radio. Clark said he is optimistic about the progress being made.
“Where we are now, we have an overwhelming majority of chambers that are either supportive or taking education on the campaign,” Clark said. “Only a few haven’t taken a position.”
As far as the editorial boards around the state, Clark said he was generally “pleasantly surprised” when asking for support.
“We’ve had some lively debates and discussions, but typically there’s an enlightenment there that gets it and supports the program,” he said.
According to Clark, while Georgia ranks among the top 10 states in road miles traveled, but it ranks just 49th in money spent for roads and bridges. He said money generated in the region with the T-SPLOST would stay in the region.
“The money doesn’t go to Atlanta,” Clark said. “I’m from Fitzgerald, by the way, so I grew up down here and understand that completely. I don’t want Atlanta taking that money either.”
Bowie said because of future rounds of BRAC (Defense Base & Realignment Commission), she considers the widening to four lanes of Georgia Highway 133 from Albany to Valdosta to be the most important of the T-SPLOST projects set for Southwest Georgia. The construction would improve connectivity between Marine Corps Logistics Base-Albany and Interstate Highway 75.
While no fan of new taxes, Clark said the T-SPLOST is the best method available for funding transportation infrastructure needs. To increase the excise tax on gasoline enough to generate the same amount of money as projected under the T-SPLOST would raise pump prices by 29 cents per gallon, he said. Transportation infrastructure is now funded by an excise tax on fuel that has not kept pace with infrastructure demands.
“I’ve asked members of the opposition to tell me what the solution is,” Clark said, “to tell me another way to alleviate congestion and deal with these projects. I’ve yet to get (another) solution and an answer to this. Inevitably, when I go to a Rotary club, when the meeting is over, people come up to me and say, ‘I get it now. I may not like it but I get it now, and I’ll vote for it.’”
The tax passes or fails in a region by a simple majority regional vote. Regions that do not pass the tax on July 31 will have to wait at least two years to try the referendum again. Meanwhile, their local match for local maintenance and improvements grants from the state will increase to 30 percent. Regions that pass the T-SPLOST will only have to match 10 percent for those grants.