Now, the hard work begins for the citizen advisory committee working to develop a list of projects recommended for funding with a 1 percent sales tax that will be the subject of a Nov. 7 referendum in Athens-Clarke County.
The 22-member committee — two members each appointed late last year by Mayor Nancy Denson and the 10 Athens-Clarke district commissioners — has been working for the past few months to review project proposals covering everything from runway improvements at Athens-Ben Epps Airport to improving the Lexington Road, Prince Avenue and Atlanta Highway corridors to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure improvement programs.
Beginning with a list of 36 proposals totaling $257 million in projected costs from various county government departments, alternative transportation advocates and supporters of the greenway multiple-use path already on the ground in some places, along with supporters of a rail-trail multiple-use path program just getting under way in the county, the advisory committee this week formally passed its first milestone.
After hearing from advocates for the various projects at a series of meetings, and then using a straw-poll technique to reach some consensus, the committee has whittled the list down to approximately 150 percent of the $104.5 million the tax is projected to raise if it wins voter approval later this year.
That list, presented to Athens-Clarke County commissioners earlier this week, comprises 21 projects totaling $154,443,000. Making the cut were a combined $25 million in bicycle and pedestrian projects, while the advisory committee opted against more than $12 million in airport improvement projects — the committee did leave in a $1.5 million allocation to the airport that could be leveraged to attract federal and state dollars — as well as nearly $3 million to rehabilitate a railroad trestle, and more than $800,000 to take over maintenance of some private streets.
And while trimming nearly $120 million from the list, while cutting the number of proposed projects nearly in half, might seem to have been a daunting challenge to meet, the advisory committee was assisted in that effort by the fact that a number of project proposals came with alternate — read lower — funding requests.
In fact, only six of the project proposals — the $1.5 million airport outlay; $940,000 to add Athens Transit bus service farther along U.S. Highway 29; $1.4 million for a Jefferson River Road sidewalk; $10 million for bicycle projects; $15 million for pedestrian projects, and $2 million for improvements at the Whitehall Road and South Milledge Avenue intersection that will include a roundabout — were recommended by the committee as potential Transportation-Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (TSPLOST) projects at their full funding levels.
The remaining projects were recommended at lower alternate funding levels, including proposed $4 million outlays for each of the three road corridors in the project list — Lexington Road, Atlanta Highway and Prince Avenue. (At Tuesday’s non-voting commission work session, Commissioner Andy Herod, whose district includes part of the Lexington Road corridor, wondered why the corridors were proposed for equal funding, given that Atlanta Highway and Lexington Road are longer than Prince Avenue.)
Responding to questions at Tuesday’s commission work session, TSPLOST Citizen Advisory Chair Alice Kinman, a former county commissioner, told commissioners that the committee is confident that projects currently on its list of recommended potential projects can’t be cut any further without unduly compromising the projects’ goals and effectiveness.
What that means, a committee member said at a Wednesday public forum on the list of recommended projects, is that the committee is now at the point of having to recommend outright elimination of some proposed projects to wring out the $50 million needed to get the projects to match the $104.5 million in projected revenue.
However that next level of cuts is managed by the committee, the county commission — which will have the final responsibility for adopting a project list for the November TSPLOST referendum — won’t nmecessarily be bound by any advisory committee recommendation.
It’s possible, according to Keith Sanders of the sales tax program management office, that the mayor and commission could decide to trim TSPLOST funding even from projects that the advisory committee has indicated shouldn’t be cut.
“They’re the mayor and commission, they can do what they want,” Sanders said lightheartedly. On a practical level, though, Sanders explained, the decisions associated with any project for which TSPLOST funding might be reduced would be not to do the project at all, or to find additional dollars from other sources to complete the project.
There will be a number of opportunities for public input on the proposed TSPLOST projects before the commission makes its final decisions, and interested citizens can provide comments online at their convenience. To comment online, go to http://athensclarkecounty.com/7165/TSPLOST, where complete information on the project list, along with schedules for committee meetings and public forums, is also available.