Commissioners take first swings at transportation tax proposals

Athens-Clarke County commissioners have begun drawing the lines across which they will develop a final list of projects for a proposed 1 percent sales tax dedicated to transportation-related projects.

 

Commissioners got their first look Tuesday at the work of a commission-appointed advisory committee that has been reviewing project proposals submitted by county government departments and other local entities for inclusion in the list for a Nov. 7 referendum. If approved by county voters, the tax is projected to raise $104.5 million in its five-year span, which would begin in April 2018.

As a first cut after hearing presentations from backers of an array of transit, air service, pedestrian, bicycle and infrastructure improvement projects, the 22-member committee — two members each appointed by Mayor Nancy Denson and the 10 district commissioners — has whittled the project list down to a projected budget representing 150 percent of the anticipated tax revenue.

The committee, chaired by Alice Kinman, a former county commissioner who shepherded an unsuccessful Transportation Special-Purpose Local Option Sales Tax conducted under different rules a couple of years ago, was in front of the mayor and commission at their Tuesday non-voting work session to get some guidance as to how commissioners wanted to see the list trimmed to match the anticipated TSPLOST revenue.

The advisory committee began with a list of 36 proposed projects, with a projected cost of $257 million, and has whittled the list down thus far to 21 projects totaling $154.4 million.

Projects rejected by the advisory committee include a $12.7 million traffic signal and control replacement program, three Athens-Ben Epps Airport proposals totaling more than $12 million, a nearly $3 million proposed stabilization of the aging Dudley Park railroad trestle made famous as part of an album cover for former Athens-based rock ban R.E.M., a $2.4 million proposal to assemble what would essentially be a frontage road along part of Atlanta Highway, a nearly $300,000 public art initiative, and a nearly $1 million proposal for the county to take over maintenance of some private streets not built to county standards.

Making the committee’s initial 150 percent cut are nearly $16 million for additional Athens Transit buses and bus stop improvements along with an expansion of bus service along U.S. Highway 29, $18 million for greenway projects, nearly $17 million for a rail-trail project, a $15 million package of pedestrian infrastructure improvement projects, $10 million to improve bicycling infrastructure, and $4 million each for programs to improve the Lexington Road, Atlanta Highway and Prince Avenue corridors.

While the advisory committee didn’t get much specific direction from the mayor and commission on Tuesday, it was clear that as commissioners consider a final project list — the commission has the responsibility of developing the list that will appear in conjunction with the referendum — there will be some contention regarding funding projects like the multiple-use greenway along the county’s river corridors and the rail-trail in an old railroad bed between downtown Athens and Winterville as opposed to more traditional road projects. Both projects are already under way with other funding, including previously approved sales tax dollars.

Commissioner Jerry NeSmith was among the commissioners urging Tuesday that the TSPLOST project list be adjusted to increase its focus on road and similar infrastructure projects, as opposed to the rail-trail and greenway initiatives, which now are slated to claim a combined 22 percent of TSPLOST revenue.

“I hope that we will narrow this down to projects that are more conventional transportation,” NeSmith told his colleagues Tuesday. NeSmith went on to argue that the rail-trail and greenway projects could be funded as part of later special-purpose local option sales tax initiatives not specifically limited to transportation projects.

Commissioner Kelly Girtz, offering a counterpoint to NeSmith’s argument, contended that the bicycle and pedestrian projects could be seen as economic development initiatives. Recounting a recent conversation with a real estate broker, Girtz told his colleagues that neighborhoods that are already somewhat “bikeable” and “walkable” are among the community’s more attractive areas in terms of bringing in new residents.

Commissioner Harry Sims, whose district includes Athens-Ben Epps Airport, spent part of Tuesday’s meeting advocating for steering funds back to the airport projects that didn’t make the committee’s initial cut, including $2.1 million for improvements to Runway 2/20, $1.4 million for improvements to the commercial terminal now under construction, and $1 million for expanding a parking lot at the new terminal.

A working group hoping to attract sustainable commercial air service to Athens is currently in discussions with two potential commercial air carriers for Athens, and Sims argued Tuesday that improving the airport is crucial to local economic development.

“If we’ve got air service, we’ll get people in here,” Sims argued. “The bottom line is, we need air service in Athens-Clarke County.”

The public got a chance to weigh in on the advisory committee’s work at a public forum on Wednesday evening, and comments can also be made online at http://bit.ly/2pxZAS5.

 

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