Commissioners urged to support proposed TSPLOST outays for alternative transportation projects

A May file photo shows work on a section of the Oconee Rivers Greenway near downtown Athens. The greenway has received a share of previous local sales tax dollars, and is on the list of projects recommended for funding with a sales tax specifically for transportation-related projects that will be the subject of a November referendum. (File photo / Joshua L. Jones, Athens Banner-Herald)

As Athens-Clarke County commissioners look toward developing a final list of projects for funding with a proposed 1 percent sales tax, some members of a committee tasked with recommending those projects recently advocated in favor or bike- and pedestrian-related improvements over those meant to ease the travels of area motorists.

 

“If you are considering making changes, please consider your biggest bucket [of proposed funding], which is pavement maintenance,” said Lauren Blais, one of 22 citizens appointed by the mayor and commission to an advisory committee for the proposed Transportation-Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.

The committee whittled an initial set of 36 project proposals totaling $257 million to a list of 14 proposed projects totaling $103 million, in line with what the tax is projected to raise during its five-year span if it is approved by voters in a Nov. 7 referendum.

In addition to the $25 million outlay proposed for pavement maintenance, the advisory committee has recommended a $16.7 million outlay for a rail-trail project along the abandoned Georgia Railroad railbed from downtown Athens through Winterville to the Oglethorpe County line. The local rail-trail could eventually become part of a planned 39-mile multiple-use paved pathway between Athens and the Greene County town of Union Point.

Other major outlays proposed by the committee include $12 million for the Oconee Rivers Greenway, an initiative already underway to install a network of multiple-use paved paths along and near the county’s river corridors; $11 million for new sidewalks and other pedestrian infrastructure improvements; a combined total of $12 million for improving the community’s gateway corridors — Prince Avenue, Lexington Road and Atlanta Highway — and $12.5 million for Athens Transit to fund the purchase of new buses and to make improvements to the county’s bus stops.

Among the projects that didn’t make the list recommended by the citizens committee was a set of improvements to a number of downtown Athens streets proposed by the county’s Transportation & Public Works Department, focused largely on Clayton Street. The project is part of a list of previous sales tax-funded projects approved by Athens-Clarke County voters, but bids for the work outstripped the available funding.

The initial request for the proposed TSPLOST project was $13.4 million, but when the advisory committee asked for alternative proposals for a number of projects, Transportation & Public Works cut its funding request to $7.2 million for a pared-down set of improvements to the downtown streetscape.

A number of commissioners have expressed support for the downtown streetscape expenditure, and that project could get some discussion as commissioners prepare for an Aug. 1 vote on a final project list for the November referendum.

The mayor and commission are not bound by the advisory committee’s recommendations, and can choose to alter recommended list. Additionally, the mayor and commission can, as Blais alluded at Wednesday’s public hearing, adjust project funding.

Blais advocated for the pedestrian and bicycle projects, “which I, as a millennial, really, really want,” she told commissioners. She went on to suggest that, even if commissioners cut the proposed pavement maintenance budget by half, “you could still feel really great” about addressing local repaving and other road maintenance needs.

However, there was some resistance expressed Wednesday to spending TSPLOST dollars on the rail-trail and the greenway.

Leslie Sinyard, a resident of intown Athens’ Milledge Circle, said those kinds of projects “are luxury things that you use leftover money for.”

Noting that members of her family are bicyclists and runners, Sinyard went on to suggest that increasing the sales tax would disproportionately hurt the community’s economically disadvantaged residents, whom she said wouldn’t likely get much return from the greenway or the rail-trail.

“I don’t believe they’re going to derive the benefits” of the two projects, Sinyard said.

Speaking more broadly, Sinyard suggested that an increased sales tax would adversely impact families and businesses, both of which she contended are bedrocks of the community. The TSPLOST, Sinyard said, “is going to hurt both of those things.”

Tyler Dewey, executive director of BikeAthens, a local alternative transportation advocacy group, took issue with Sinyard’s position, telling the commission that his organization provides dozens of bicycles annually to adults who need them for transportation.

“So, yes, bike lanes and sidewalks will benefit” the economically disadvantaged, Dewey said.

Additional opportunities for public comment on the TSPLOST proposal will come at the commission’s July 18 agenda-setting meeting, and at the Aug. 1 regular voting meeting in which commissioners are expected to make a final decision on the project list for the November referendum. Both meetings are set for 6 p.m. at City Hall in downtown Athens.

 

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