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TSPLOST vote looms; millions hang in balance

By Sherri Ellington The Three Rivers Regional Commission is gearing up for a July referendum on a 10-year transportation sales tax commonly called TSPLOST. Lamar County should receive about $14.9 million in unrestricted transportation money and some $21 million in funding designated for specific projects. For the latter, Lamar chose to join with Upson County on four-laning Highway 36 from I-75 to Thomaston. Local governments will hear presentations in the months leading up to the vote. The 2010 Transportation Investment Act authorizes the vote in the Three Rivers Regional Commission and 11 other special transportation tax districts on a 1% sales tax to fund transportation projects. If the tax is approved, funds start flowing in the first quarter of 2013. The total return to Lamar should be about $35.9 million. ’Increased fuel efficiency of modern vehicles caused gas tax revenues to decline. Those revenues are needed to maintain roads and bridges,’ said Three Rivers government services director Richard Hiett. ‘Travel patterns and road use of average citizens remain the same. Transportation funding can’t keep pace with growth and the need communities have for safe, efficient, economical transportation infrastructure improvements.’ If the TSPLOST is approved the tax would last 10 years but it could expire sooner if projected revenue is raised earlier. The tax must be approved by a majority of voters in the 10 county TRRC District. A regional roundtable of 20 elected officials decided the overall project list. Each county has one mayor to represent all its cities and is represented by the county commission chairman. Roundtable members for Lamar are chairman Jay Matthews and Barnesville Mayor Peter Banks. If the tax is not approved, Lamar and its cities must increase local matching funds by 30% on state transportation grants for at least two years. ’Without TSPLOST routine transportation projects in Lamar would take longer to get underway, could be permanently postponed or put Lamar at an economic development disadvantage with industries that need certain levels of access and connectivity,’ said Hiett. ‘If the TSPLOST isn’t approved by voters, the region must wait at least two years to reconsider it.’ Individual counties cannot opt out. Money raised in each district stays in that district and pays for projects established by its roundtable. Criteria include using funds to achieve best value for improvements, supporting economic growth, ensuring safety and security, maximizing Georgia’s assets and minimizing environmental impact. In all, 75% of the region’s proceeds will fund the final project list. That will be some $710 million in the Three Rivers area. The Department of Transportation and Georgia Regional Transportation Authority would be responsible for project delivery and determine if a project should be designed and constructed by the DOT, a local government or another public or private entity. The other 25% will be divided among local governments based on the LARP formula: one-fifth population, four-fifths center lane miles. This comes to about $236 million districtwide. Total transportation investment over 10 years is $947 million. By contrast, the 2013 fiscal year state motor fuel budget is $1,002,450,000. Of this, 68% is expected to fund debt, routine maintenance and operations. ’Federal and state funding to maintain the local and regional road network is declining. TIA is a funding tool regions can use to maintain or improve all modes of transportation,’ said Hiett. ‘Federal funding is likely to decline in the future, costing Georgia hundreds of millions of dollars while delaying critical projects. Georgia gets some 50% of its funding from the Federal Highway Trust Fund.’ Studies show toll lanes, oil barrel surcharges and vehicle miles traveled taxes appear more unpopular with citizens than a sales tax. ’Without a sales tax, the only options for expensive transportation improvements are likely to be paid for via toll roads and VMT taxes,’ he said. The ballot question will be a simple yes or no to: ‘Shall the county’s transportation system and the transportation network in this region and the state be improved by providing for a 1% sales and use tax for the purpose of transportation projects and programs for a period of 10 years.’

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