Region wrestles with transportation priorities

Road resurfacing key to voter approval, officials say

The challenge of a region as diverse as the Augusta area deciding on its transportation priorities showed itself Thursday, when a regional transportation committee voted - at the urging of the district's rural counties - to eliminate road resurfacing projects.


The move aggravated Augusta officials, who believe resurfacing busy arteries such as Wrightsboro Road, Tobacco Road and Highland Avenue was key to voter approval next year, when the plan to pay for those and other projects with a new 1 percent sales tax goes on the ballot.

"The issue is, they don't have any idea what our real needs are," said City Administrator Fred Russell, an advocate for using the new sales tax for maintaining the city's busy, but aging, roadways.

Russell, Augusta Commissioner Joe Jackson, Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross and Georgia Department of Transportation board member Don Grantham met Friday to get those projects back on the list, at least for the region's larger counties, and Jackson said they'll definitely be revisited.

"If you look at Wrightsboro Road, it's deplorable," Jackson said. "If we don't use this to get us where we need to be, then the next SPLOST that comes out, we're going to use it for resurfacing."

The Transportation Investment Act of 2010 directed each region to determine a list of priorities to fund through a regional sales tax that, coupled with existing 1-percent sales taxes for infrastructure and schools, will bring taxes to 8 cents on the dollar in each of the region's counties.

Determining those priorities across an area that includes the aging urban infrastructure of Augusta-Richmond County, Columbia County's new sprawl and counties among Georgia's smallest and poorest has proved to be difficult. With a fourth meeting set for Thursday in Thomson, the list has not yet been finalized.

All but Richmond County's set of priorities appeared final last week, when the committee voted down resurfacing and sent the rest of the counties home to re-evaluate their lists.

With more than 70 percent of the district's registered voters, and generating about 77 percent of the sales tax revenue, Richmond and Columbia counties are the driving force to both pass and pay for the new regional sales tax. All but Richmond, Columbia and possibly Burke County would receive more from the regional tax over 10 years than the counties could raise on their own.

The process began with each county preparing a wish list of its transportation needs. That list, even after a vetting by the Georgia Department of Transportation, contained $2.6 billion in projects, far more than estimated revenue projections of around $630 million, excluding the 25 percent discretionary share.

In three meetings, the regional transportation roundtable's executive committee managed to whittle about 185 projects down to 80 with a total price tag of $556.8 million. Gone were most of Richmond County's airport projects, Columbia County's park-and-ride proposal and Burke County's regional rural transit project, along with costly rural proposals, such as Glascock County's request for $67 million to improve two local roads.

Columbia County has its list down to eight projects totaling $235.5 million, with a $66 million request for an extension of River Watch Parkway, a commuter route into Richmond County, topping the list both in priority and cost.

With the reduction of Augusta Public Transit's share from $63 million to $8 million, the costliest projects on Richmond County's unprioritized list are improving Broad Street from end to end for $30 million and realigning and widening Berckmans Road for $23 million. The county's current total is $300.7 million.

Other, "vote-getter" projects, such as improvements to Mike Padgett Highway, western Wrightsboro Road and Windsor Spring Road, remain on Richmond County's list at lower amounts to cover unforeseen expenses because the state has already committed to paying for them, said Grantham, the former Augusta commissioner who's been busy assisting the Transportation Investment Act districts that touch the 10th Congressional District he represents.

Grantham advised everyone to read House Bill 277, the Transportation Investment Act passed by the Legislature last year.

"It was thought out quite well," he said. "It's more of a general public's bill, to approving it, collecting it and spending it. To me, that's three things that make good sense."

An overlooked aspect of the bill is that if the target amount is collected in less than 10 years, the tax can be stopped, he said.

Implementing the bill has meant a learning curve for committee members, however, with Transportation Department officials explaining the ropes as the process got under way and politicians left having to sell a brand new tax to voters.

"This is the only game we're dealt to play," Jackson said. "I kind of wish we had some more rules to play by, but we don't."

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