Would a regional transportation tax be a good or bad thing for Madison County? It’s hard to say yet, but I do have some real misgivings about what’s being proposed.
If you haven’t heard, a bill is moving through the General Assembly that, if passed, would divide the state into 12 regions, allowing each region to submit a referendum to voters for a one percent sales tax to fund a list of projects within the region.
Naturally, anybody in Madison County has to wonder, “Well, what will Athens get, and what will we get?”
When you start looking at regional transportation issues, you generally have to justify projects based on traffic density. Therefore, more urban areas are always going to get the lion’s share of funding. But everyone here recognizes that you don’t have to be Gwinnett County to have traffic issues.
For instance, with roughly 120 miles of dirt roads, Madison County probably has more paving projects to tackle than more populated areas. The county also has some paved roads that could use resurfacing.
Remember that Madison County is already part of an area transportation entity. For years, Madison County has been a part of MACORTS (the Madison Athens-Clarke Oconee Regional Transportation Study). And that affiliation has generated very little help for Madison County.
Rural county leaders have obviously expressed concerns about the transportation tax, since smaller counties could be forced to fund regional projects that don’t help them at all. So, lawmakers have debated opt-out clauses in the bill.
According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, in a new version discussed Tuesday, counties would not be able to opt out of the region or its tax. However, the whole region could decide to opt out of a referendum.
“The bill as it stands now would offer a couple of carrots to regions that do vote on a list,” the AJC reported. “First, it would increase the state subsidy they currently get for a category of small paving and local projects. Also, in most of the state, 25 percent of the region’s new tax proceeds would stay in the local governments where the money came from. In the Atlanta region, that would be 15 percent.”
Actually, I’d prefer it all stay local. Or, at least keep 60 to 70 percent of the funds in the counties where they are generated. Why not allow each county to vote on levying a new one-cent tax for roads? That way more local roads can be covered with more local funds. Yes, it’s a tax increase, but sales tax increases are generally more palatable to the public than any other form. And we do have to pay for roads, one way or another. Plus, if county residents didn’t like it, they could vote it down.
I can’t help but feel suspicious. Is a one-cent regional transportation tax a viable way to generate additional revenue for roads in Georgia, or is it simply a shift of burden from the state to the counties, a passing of the hot potato disguised as a gift?
With the state in a desperate financial fix, I can’t help but think that the establishment of a regional tax would be accompanied by a long-term slashing of Department of Transportation funding. Would regions eventually be asked to pick up the maintenance of routes currently maintained by the state? Maybe not, but it seems a real possibility. If that’s not the intent, then why not allow local referendums for new local transportation taxes?
All of this comes at a crucial time for Madison County. While the state looks for ways to pay for services, one of Madison County’s long-term fiscal concerns is footing the bill for roadwork.
In 2007, the county commissioners tried to tackle too much with their SPLOST projects. They split the six-year, one-cent tax pie into so many pieces that no one could get sufficiently full. And roads were shortchanged. The previous five-year SPLOST included over $8 million for roads. But the current six-year sales tax includes less than $4 million for roads — and that comes at a time when the state is cutting off the funding spigot.
Yes, a one-cent transportation tax could be a positive thing for Madison County — if it remained local. But a one-cent regional tax, well, I’ll have to hear a heck of a sales job to jump on board. If there is a new regional road power, you can sure bet there will be intense regional road disputes. I’d rather keep that kind of fight in the county. At least somebody local would always win.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
Excellent analysis of the planned regional plan of sales taxation for regional roads. It is clear that the winners will not be rural counties. However, it is unlikely that Madison County will be able to convince the remaining counties to opt out of the venture, so what remains is to plan for getting whatever help is possible for roads that have the greatest traffic imposed need. Admittedly that will likely leave the unpaved for Madison county to address alone, however, it might get some help for the most traveled and in need roads.