$210 million in projects in tax vote are undetermined

Before ballots are cast for a 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax for transportation, voters will have little way of knowing how $210 million will be spent.

The law creating a July 31 referendum on a Special District Transportation Sales and Use Tax reserved 25 percent of regional revenues for local transportation projects yet to be determined. Local jurisdictions will share the money but can use it without regional or citizen oversight.

The other 75 percent of tax collections must be used for a project list that was completed Oct. 15 after months of review by regional leaders.

Defenders of the tax say transportation can’t be improved without accounting for smaller projects that arise, such as potholes, sinkholes, drainage problems and everyday maintenance. Tax skeptics, however, want to make sure that money is used wisely.

Augusta Commission member Joe Jackson, who served on a regional roundtable for the tax, said writing a mandated list undermines the flexibility of a discretionary fund. He does have recommendations for city traffic engineers, however.

“It needs to go back into the infrastructure of this county,” Jackson said.

Local shares are determined by a complex calculation based on local population and a ratio of paved roads to dirt roads. No state approval is needed for local projects.

Traffic Engineer Steve Cassell said the county could start with projects that were proposed before the project list was cut. Those include resurfacing Tobacco Road, Highland Avenue and Wrightsboro Road from Marks Church Road to Highland Avenue.

“As time goes by, our priorities might be redirected,” Cassell said.

Intersection improvements, bridge work, drainage and road safety could also receive some funds, he said. Projects, like any road construction, would need approval of the city commission.

Richmond County could receive more than $45 million to use in the consolidated areas, Blythe and Hephzibah.

Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles said he’s concerned about a lack of public input on discretionary money. He sees the local funding as a way politicians can reward their own districts.

“We need to put an overall map and plan in front of voters,” Bowles said. “Let them decide.”

The discretionary money must go toward transportation, but aside from that there are few rules. It can be used as local matches for state projects and grants.

Columbia County voters might have a better idea of where their local allocation will go.

Ron Cross, the chairman of the Columbia County Commission, said local leaders have started making a rough list of improvements that didn’t make their final project list.

Discretionary funds could be used to improve more than five intersections, Cross said. That could include traffic lights, turn lanes or widening the road approaching an intersection.

The intersections of Blanchard Road at Wash­ington and Hereford Farm roads could get improvements, he said. Sidewalk additions near schools and the paving of the county’s few remaining dirt roads are also making a short list.

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