If a regional transportation sales tax passes in a July 2012 referendum, Fayette County is expected to chip in $190 million over 10 years.
While some of that money would come from out-of-county visitors shopping here, a good chunk of it stands to come out of the pockets of Fayette County residents.
In return, Fayette is expected to get back some $187 million in road and cart path projects on the list, including $43 million that will be provided to the cities and the county for non-regional transportation projects.
Fayetteville Mayor Ken Steele, who served on the 21-member roundtable that prepared the sales tax project list, said he will not be advocating for passage of the referendum. Instead, he feels it’s up to voters to make up their own minds.
“Quite frankly I felt the entire time that my obligation was to bring a project list home to Fayette County that was worthy of the voters’ consideration,” Steele said. “Now that we have that, I think the onus and responsibility is on the voters to decide what they would like.”
Steele was absent for the final vote on the project list Thursday, and he told The Citizen that he was instead conducting city business in preparation for the upcoming legislative session; the Thursday vote was largely ceremonial in nature anyway, he said.
But Steele said he voted in favor of the list two days before and he would have voted for it had he been present on Thursday.
Fayette County Commission Chairman Herb Frady, who joined Steele on the roundtable representing Fayette County, voted Thursday in favor of the project list, helping make it a unanimous vote.
Frady has previously said that he is not worried about how the other nine metro Atlanta counties choose to spend their allocated funds on the project list for the proposed tax. Frady said his main concern is making sure Fayette County has a good return on its investment.
In that regard, Steele noted that Fayette County was getting $187 million in transportation improvements in Fayette County alone compared to the estimated $190 million Fayette will pay into the tax over the 10-year lifespan. Fayette’s project totals do not count projects elsewhere in metro Atlanta that might help Fayette commuters.
“If the voters opt to pass the transportation investment act, the folks in Fayette County will receive more than a full return on their investment,” Steele said.
Critics, meanwhile, are decrying that half of the $6 plus billion that would be raised by the tax would be earmarked for transit projects at the expense of road improvements in the other nine metro Atlanta counties. As an example, the tax would fund operations of the Clayton County bus service that was shelved last year as a cost-cutting measure by the Clayton County Commission.
Now that the sales tax project list has been approved, the roundtable is technically dissolved, according to the legislation creating the sales tax process. However, a large number of regional officials have cited the process as being good for metro Atlanta because they were able to meet with each other and find common ground on transportation matters.
If the tax is approved by voters, project implementation will be in the hands of the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority, which supports bus and vanpool options for metro Atlanta commuters.
There is also a move afoot in the Georgia legislature to create a regional transit authority to oversee transit planning and perhaps transit operations, in the metro Atlanta area. Critics, including Fayette County Commissioner Steve Brown, allege this is an initial step towards forcing Fayette County to pay for transit operations.
However, Steele notes that bus and rail projects previously targeted for Fayette on a conceptual map for the metro Atlanta area have been removed. The commuter rail line has been adjusted to head down to Newnan instead along an existing rail next to Interstate 85, Steele added.
Furthermore, the recently-passed regional transportation plan that lasts through the year 2040 has no transit projects for Fayette County either, Steele pointed out.
“That’s 29 years from now,” Steele said. “I think I have insured that at this point in history there is no transit in our future.”
Fayette County resident Bob Ross, who has delved into the details of the proposed regional sales tax and attended many roundtable meetings, said he thinks the county getting back $187 million in projects for its $190 million is a plus, but he ultimately can’t support the tax.
Ross told the Fayette County Commission Thursday night that he worries about the tax somehow tying Fayette County to the MARTA transit agency, which has about $700 million in projects for funding under the sales tax.
“Of the $6.1 billion in approved projects, virtually half of that money will go to transit, bus and rail systems,” Ross told commissioners.
Ross pointed out that MARTA ridership has decreased in the past 10 years while the population has grown more than 20 percent. Also, the agency had operational losses of over half a billion each year, he added.
“There’s no plan going forward to change any of those metrics,” Ross said, adding that he fears Fayette County will end up having to pay for MARTA operations in the future.
“That left us with one alternative … and that’s to torpedo the whole tax,” Ross said. While he said the project list included great alternatives for the entire region, he felt Fayette residents would be saddled with the expenses for some time after the 10-year tax levy would expire.
The sales tax vote is currently slated for July 2012, but the possibility remains that it could be delayed until the presidential election in November. Doing so would require action by the Georgia Legislature, which created the first-ever regional sales tax process last year.
Georgia Tea Party representatives have strongly opposed moving the vote to November, based on the theory that more Democrats will vote in that election to cast ballots for President Barack Obama, thus increasing the chances of the vote passing region-wide.
The sales tax legislation was structured for the vote to be tallied in aggregate across the 10-county region. That means Fayette County has precious little clout at the ballot box because it is one of the least populous counties in the metro region.
So the possibility remains that Fayette County itself could vote down the tax, but if it is approved region-wide the tax will be assessed here and in the other nine counties.