Speaker Seth Millican addresses the Dade Chamber of Commerce luncheon on April 19.
Despite the local furor over TSPLOST, the transportation special purpose local option sales tax that would raise the local sales tax from 7 to 8 cents on the dollar, up for referendum on May 22, only 20-odd people attended a luncheon last week with an expert guest speaker on the subject.
The Dade County Chamber of Commerce had invited Seth Millican of the Georgia Transportation Alliance to speak at its quarterly luncheon on April 19. Millican explained that the Alliance was a group devoted to finding long-term solutions to transportation challenges in the state, specifically from an economic development and job-creation standpoint. The alliance collects data, assesses problems, brainstorms for solutions and supplies information to legislators.
As such, GTA was instrumental in getting TSPLOST on the statewide ballot in 2012 as a regional initiative. Geographic clumps of counties held referenda on the measure in November 2012. Statewide, three regions said yes to TSPLOST, the Central Savannah River, Heart of Georgia/Altamaha and River Valley areas. In the northwest Georgia region, Dade was the only county that voted yes that year. “That was by far not a perfect effort,” said Millican at the chamber luncheon. “There’s probably a lot of good reasons it failed.”
The Alliance got back to work tweaking TSPLOST, and in 2015, as part of a bigger transportation bill passed by the Georgia Legislature, TSPLOST was reborn as a single-county initiative, each county allowed to vote it in or out by referendum. Dade County rejected it in a November 2017 special election, but Millican said a dozen counties have passed it in this second avatar. Dade will have another chance on May 22.
Transportation policy pundits see TSPLOST as an excellent way for counties to self-fund desperately needed transportation projects, said Millican. “We’d like to see TSPLOST in every county in the state of Georgia,” he said.
He said that in the three regions that had adopted it, TSPLOST had been wildly successful. “Construction down there is gangbusters,” he said. “They are all planning to do it again. They love it.”
The town of Columbus had used the extra penny to revamp its bus fleet, said Millican, while in the Heart of Georgia district TSPLOST had been used to pave the area’s gravel and dirt roads.
Dade County paved most of its dirt roads years ago, but it has an arm-long list of other transportation needs including sidewalks to the schools, better lighting at the north and south interstate exits and a new exit north of Trenton. Readers may see a list of those projects under the county and city project lists at http://www.dadecounty-ga.gov/tsplost.cfm.
Candidates for local offices took the luncheon as an opportunity to educate themselves on TSPLOST--and to press flesh. Above are, from left, Circuit Judge Ralph Van Pelt and District 1 county commissioner candidates Jane Dixon and Patrick Hickey. Below are, from left, District 2 candidates Warren Johnson and Michael Scott, with District 3 Commissioner Robert Goff. Goff is not up for reelection until 2020.
Millican said transportation is a huge concern in economic development. You can create a lot of jobs, he said, but what good does it do if you can’t get to them?
Transportation is, in fact, a huge concern across the state in just about every aspect of life right now, he said. “As the population rises we’re going to get another million cars on the road,” said Millican. “There’s nowhere to put them.”
Traffic is expected to increase in Georgia 30 percent by 2030, he said, and there was literally not enough road space to fit all the vehicles in. Asked about the new inland port in Chatsworth—a conduit from the Port of Savannah—due to open this year, he said, “It means a lot more trucks.” GTA’s goal is to get some of the loads of cargo streaming up from the coast, then into and out of Murray County, onto trains, said Millican, but for right now increased truck congestion is going to be a reality.
Millican said one of the trends he expected to see that will affect Dade County in the near future is an effort to route truck traffic away from city gridlock and into wider-open spaces. “Shipping has to move out from metro Atlanta to rural areas,” he said.
Typically, he said, that means more development. First it means gas stations and truck stops, then warehouses and manufacturing facilities. “It’s going to be an economic boon,” he said. “But there’s going to be a lot more traffic.”
From TSPLOST, Millican went on to speak a little on good old regular-flavor SPLOST, the special purpose local option sales tax which since 1985 has been helping Georgia counties, cities and school systems pay for capital projects—schools, courthouses, libraries as well as roads—which they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. “It really is the envy of people around the country,” said Millican. It allows Georgia to have a well-funded transportation department, among other things, he said.
Retired educator Donna Street, attending the luncheon, recalled some of the projects Dade used SPLOST money for. “When this first started, it was like a gold mine,” she said.
Dade has used SPLOST money not just for roads but to tear down its crumbling jail and build a modern new one, then to rehouse some of its cramped county offices into the newly built Administrative Building, and finally to relocate its court functions into the new court facility in 2010. But when sales or gas prices go down in the county, so do SPLOST collections, and when that happens, lower-priority projects go on hold—as is the case at Dade’s historic courthouse, where renovation efforts go by fits and spells with availability of funds.
“If road money could be diverted somewhere else, we can go back and finish some of these projects,” said Ms. Street.
The TSPLOST is meant to go a step further than SPLOST in the transportation department—the extra penny cannot be used for anything but transportation projects. Other salient points about the tax Millican stressed are:
It is 1 percent on the dollar for five years.
All Dade TSPLOST money stays in Dade.
Since Dade is a border county, 30 to 40 percent of TSPLOST is expected to be paid by people who don’t live in Dade.
If TSPLOST collects enough to pay for the listed projects before the five-year period is up, the tax will no longer be collected.
If not enough TSPLOST money is collected to pay for all the listed projects, the ones on the bottom fall off.
Luncheon attendee Stacy Huffman pointed out that some of the transportation projects on Dade’s list seem to be “phase ones”—first steps that imply that a second or more TSPLOST period would be required to complete them. For example, what Dade has listed relative to the proposed new northern interstate exchange is $170,000 for an initial study.
GTA’s Seth Millican said that in fact the counties that have adopted TSPLOST like it enough that they will probably renew it. Nothing is formal yet, he said, but: “I bet you a paycheck that every county that did that is going to renew.”
Opponents of the TSPLOST tax in Dade have put up signs throughout the county and made themselves heard loudly on social media and en masse at public meetings. Only lately have a few "fer"-TSPLOST signs been popping up.
Meanwhile, almost all Dade County and Trenton city officials have made their pro-TSPLOST sentiments known on or off the record--virtually everyone involved in the local governments believes the tax is necessary.
But besides the information the local governments posted recently on their respective websites, nobody has made much of a case for TSPLOST publicly. Community meetings to discuss the TSPLOST with voters, though announced earlier in the year, have never materialized.
Early voting begins this Monday, April 30. The Saturday voting day this seaon is May 12.