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T-SPLOST foes argue up to vote

7/21/2012

By GORDON JACKSON and HANK ROWLAND
The Brunswick News

To its supporters, a 1 percent sales tax for transportation that will go before voters July 31 is a potential economic powerhouse for creating construction jobs that will pump more money into the economy and create other jobs.

To its opponents, the Transportation Investment Act is a boondoggle.

Woody Woodside, president of the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce, aligns with the supporters. "This is one of the most important things in several decades," Woodside said this week at a breakfast meeting to promote the tax.

The Transportation Investment Act - which originally came out of the Legislature as a Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sale Tax and is still commonly referred to as T-SPLOST - is a statewide strategy for building, primarily, roads and bridges, but which voters will decide on by regions. A region that rejects the tax won't collect it - or get the projects it would have funded - while a region that approves it will pay the price and get the projects.

In the coastal region of Glynn County and nine others - McIntosh, Camden, Chatham, Effingham, Bulloch, Bryan, Liberty, Long and Screven - an estimated $1.6 billion is expected to be collected during the 10-year life of the tax.

Supporters of the tax estimate it will generate $3.15 million annually for Glynn County and $650,000 for Brunswick during those 10 years. Passage would increase the sales tax in Glynn County to 7 percent from 6 percent.

A region that rejects the tax and does not collect it may be at a disadvantage in competing for new businesses if surrounding regions approve the tax, supporters say. Rural counties will get more money for projects than they contribute, but an entire region will benefit from the jobs that are created and the improved highway connections, they argue.

"We're in trouble when it comes to transportation funding," Doug Callaway, executive director of the Georgia Transportation Alliance, said this week in Glynn County. "The transportation system is running out of gas. A 'yes' vote means more jobs, safer roads and local control."

Callaway says approval of the referendum will give the state the ability to do something about the lagging economy by investing in transportation.

Opponents in the coastal region argue the referendum is unconstitutional because it is a regional vote that is unfair to smaller counties in the district that will be overshadowed by Chatham County, with an estimated population of more than 271,000. In comparison, Glynn County, the second largest in the region, has fewer than 80,000 people.

Among the non-road projects that would be paid for by the tax are construction of new a terminal at McKinnon St. Simons Island Airport, a general aviation, or non-commercial, terminal at Brunswick Golden Isles Airport and a new fire station at the Brunswick Golden Isles Airport.

"It's pretty standard to have two terminals at an airport of any size," said Steven Brian, executive director of the Glynn County Airport Commission. "You can't have general aviation (for private and charter flights) mixing with carrier operations."

The fire station at the Brunswick Golden Isles Airport needs to be replaced because the building was constructed in 1955, when fire trucks were smaller. The concrete floor is cracked from the weight of today's trucks. The station also is in a low-lying area which floods during heavy rain.

The entrance to the existing station is so narrow that there is only about 6 inches of clearance for the newest truck to pull in and out.

That makes it a public safety concern because firefighters at the station also respond to fires and other emergencies outside the airport, Brian said.

Ronnie Perry, a Golden Isles Association of Realtors member who has made presentations throughout the community to generate support for the tax, says the airport projects are relevant to transportation in Glynn County. "When corporate business people come to Glynn County, they don't drive in, they fly in," he said.

Opponents contend that some projects to be funded by the tax - including the airport terminals - are unnecessary, that employment estimates are inflated and that it doesn't make sense for a county to have to transfer out more of the revenue it collects than it retains for itself.

Two of the community's political groups - the Glynn County Republican Party and Golden Isles Tea Party - are taking stands against the tax. County Democrats say they are leaning against it.

Republicans are the most outspoken, and passed a resolution demanding that the county's delegation to the state Legislature try to stop the T-SPLOST referendum during the last session of the General Assembly before it made it on the ballot. That didn't happen.

"The Glynn County Republican Party has stated for more than a year that new taxes is not the way to solve the problem of this community," said Ron Sadowski, party chairman. "The T-SPLOST is a new tax using an untested methodology and was passed in a cobbled together hodgepodge of a bill."

Sadowski blames the state Department of Transportation for funding shortages it is experiencing and for the need for the tax to pay for highway projects.

"It is not funding, but the dysfunctional state agency called Georgia Department Of Transportation (that is the issue)," he said. "Reforming this agency and clearing up the fraud and mismanagement would bring clarity to where our tax dollars are being spent. Then and only then could any argument be put forward on how best to fund transportation."

Marjorie Peters, spokesperson for the Golden Isles Tea Party, says the group is opposed to the tax for philosophical and practical reasons.

"In a time of deep recession, when individuals, cities, states, and the nation are struggling to meet their financial responsibilities, we do not need, nor can we afford, a new tax," Peters said. "This $18.7 billion (statewide) tax increase will not help the economy of Georgia.

"A few may benefit, but the rest of us will be poorer. In fact, this tax is regressive and will hurt lower-income citizens the most."

Audrey Stewart, chair of the Glynn County Democratic Party, says the party met recently to discuss a position on the sales tax.

"We were not unanimous in our vote," she said. "It is safe to say we lean toward not supporting the referendum. While we like bringing jobs to our coastal district and fixing our infrastructure, too many questions remain."

Glynn County Commissioner Tom Sublett, a member of the regional committee that approved the list of projects, acknowledges that passage of the T-SPLOST will be difficult. Blame it on the times, he said.

"I think people are bone weary after almost four years of economic recession," Sublett said. "The vast majority of people feel like, and think, we are still in a recession, and seeing their friends' and neighbors' houses foreclosed on has greatly impacted everyone. How many people have not been affected negatively in some way, directly or indirectly?"

There's another reason some may be reluctant to support it.

"I still believe the majority of people are so frustrated and disillusioned with the federal government that they do not trust state or local government anymore either," he said.

None of that has changed Sublett's mind about the 1 percent tax.

"(The Transportation Investment Act) will be an investment in infrastructure, help facilitate future growth and development, and it will create jobs, directly and indirectly," he said. "But will a majority of voters pass any new tax? I don't know. In my opinion I think it is a toss up, a 50-50 chance of it passing."

Project list

The Transportation Investment Act, if passed in the 10-county coastal region that includes Glynn County, would fund these projects, listed in descending order of cost:

* Ga. 99 widening from Ga. 32 to U.S. 341: $35.6 million

* Ga. 99 widening from U.S. 341 to I-95: $22.5 million

* Ga. 99 widening from U.S. 82 to Ga. 32: $15 million

* Glynco Parkway widening from U.S. 17 to Spur 25: $12.5 million

* New Brunswick Golden Isles Airport general aviation (non-commercials) terminal and apron, and new McKinnon St. Simons Island Airport general aviation terminal and auto parking rehabilitation: $10.2 million

* U.S. 17 widening from Yacht Road to Harry Driggers Boulevard: $4.7 million

* I-95 Exit 42 reconstruction: $3.3 million

* Ga. 99 widening from 1-95 to U.S. 17: $2.6 million

* Brunswick/Glynn County fixed-route transit subsidy: $2.4 million

* New Brunswick Golden Isles Airport fire station: $2 million

* U.S. 341 ramp extension at Knight Road: $1.1 million

* U.S. 17 Thornhill Creek Bridge reconstruction: $1.1 million

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