Columbia County has a lot riding on the July 31 vote on a special tax to fund transportation and road projects in the region.
Three of the county’s projects are among the top six most costly projects in the 13-county region. The county’s project list totals $174.6 million for eight proposals.
Four projects in Columbia County are more expensive than Richmond County’s most costly project – a widening of Windsor Spring Road costing $25.3 million with only $4 million in funding needed from the proposed tax. Widening and extending major thoroughfares in the county is crucial to helping relieve congestion caused by population growth, supporters of the tax in Columbia County say. Grovetown, in the southern portion of the county, has become a traffic nightmare for commuters and businesses.
Tammy Shepherd, the president and CEO of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, said improvements will ease transportation for some of the county’s largest employers and big manufacturers on Horizon South Parkway and Lewiston Road.
“We feel, for the future growth of our county, infrastructure is key for new business and maintaining our current businesses,” she said.
According to U.S. Census data, Columbia County grew by 38 percent, or 35,000 residents, between 2000 and 2010.
“This is a 10-year tax. If we grow 25 percent in the next 10 years, what kind of congestion are we looking at in these major corridors?” Shepherd asked.
Columbia County residents who oppose the tax agree the projects are needed but don’t think a tax is the way to fund them.
Joey Brush, a former state representative and senator and a Grovetown resident, said the Georgia Department of Transportation, which is mostly responsible for project delivery, needs to be held accountable for its inability to complete projects.
“DOT is probably the most inefficient and wasteful department of state government,” Brush said. “Do we have to have another tax for them to do what they were supposed to do in the first place?”
Al Gray, who splits his time between Lincoln and Columbia counties, said GDOT “squandered funding through their loss of accounting.”
Several road projects in Columbia County have been proposed for years, but Georgia’s motor fuel tax has been misused, Gray said.
Backers of the tax in Richmond County say the entire metropolitan area benefits from road improvements.
Scott MacGregor, a consultant for the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce who has worked closely promoting the tax, said transportation investment is crucial for regional connectivity and economic development.
“We’ve got to understand that making sure Columbia County continues to have good traffic flow is a big part of keeping the whole metro area healthy,” he said.
Many residents are eyeing a proposal to extend River Watch Parkway to Washington Road in Evans. That route, supporters say, would give commuters quick access from Columbia County homes to jobs in Augusta.
MacGregor said Richmond County should be interested in attracting suburban residents to downtown.
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said that while the county’s most urgent needs are near Grovetown, there are also gains for the northern portion of the county. Making Furys Ferry Road four lanes from Evans to Locks Road to the South Carolina line is a future need that must be accounted for in this tax, he said.
“It’s the only hope for transportation funding probably for a good while,” Cross said. “Good planning starts ahead of when you’re in an emergency.”
Another endorser of the tax is the CSRA Alliance for Fort Gordon. Thom Tuckey, a retired Army colonel and the group’s executive director, said transportation infrastructure will help determine growth of the military installation. Roads feeding into Fort Gordon need improvement, he said.
“All of that bodes well for installation growth at Fort Gordon,” Tuckey said.