Transportation tax collections for Augusta, others lower than expected

 

ATLANTA — Collections so far for the three regions that approved a transportation sales tax have been 18 percent lower than predicted, the state Department of Transportation reported Wednesday.

Still, the agency gave the go-ahead to the first project funded by the tax that voters in 46 counties approved in July. The lead-off project is a $161,000 road repaving by the Toombs County government.

“It’s kind of a milestone for us,” said Mike Dover, the department’s administrator over the tax-funded projects.

When he said that to the state Transportation Board, mild applause broke out. In July, the first round of contracts will be let to the lowest bidders.

Voters in the Augusta, Columbus and Vidalia-Jesup regions agreed to pay an extra 1 percent on their purchases for 10 years or until $1.8 billion is raised. The Augusta region’s share will be $841 million for 84 projects agreed to by a regional panel and whatever local officials decide to fund with the city’s share of the 25 percent of collections that are undesignated.

In January and February, the Augusta region collected $9 million, sending $2.25 million in undesignated money to the counties.

Dover suggested that the weak collections were startup-related because it took some retailers awhile to realize they had to boost the tax rate and because smaller merchants that submit the tax quarterly will not have had to make their first payments. The March figures are not yet available.

“The good news is they’re trending upward,” he told the board.

Board member Don Grantham, of Augusta, said as work begins on the projects, voters who rejected the tax are likely to change their mind.

“A lot of people are seeing the things that we knew would happen,” he said.

Dover told the board that the DOT would contract with a university to track the economic impact of the tax but not the number of jobs created to complete the projects. Several board members bristled at that.

“If it wasn’t in the field, those jobs wouldn’t exist,” member Sam Wellborn said. “I think you ought to keep track of it.”

Grantham said proponents of the tax had predicted that if it passed statewide, 27,000 jobs would result.

“I think it’s important that we follow that to show we’re living up to our prediction,” he said. “A lot of people doubted that.”

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