Athens-Clarke County commissioners are leaning toward substantial cuts in recommended sales tax funding for a rail-trail project and expansion of the county’s greenway network as a trade-off for ensuring money for a downtown Athens streetscape improvement project.
With a list of recommendations from a citizens advisory committee as a starting point, commissioners are working toward an Aug. 1 meeting where they will set the final list of projects that would be funded if voters approve a 1 percent Transportation-Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax in a November referendum.
Commissioners spent nearly two hours on Tuesday developing some consensus on a list of TSPLOST projects. That work will continue at the commission’s July 18 agenda-setting session, and commissioners decided Tuesday to add a July 25 meeting to their TSPLOST deliberations.
At the most recent meeting, commissioners discussed cutting deeply into the funding recommendation for the local section of the Firefly Trail, a paved bicycle and pedestrian pathway that will roughly follow the long-abandoned Georgia Railroad railbed from the eastern end of downtown Athens through the city of Winterville to the Oglethorpe County line. Ultimately, the local section of the Firefly Trail could become part of a 39-mile paved pathway ending in Union Point.
The TSPLOST citizens advisory committee had recommended allocating $16.8 million in TSPLOST funding to the Firefly Trail. On Commissioners reached some agreement to cut that allocation to $11.4 million.
The Oconee Rivers Greenway network, a $12 million funding recommendation from the TSPLOST committee, could be cut to $10 million.
“I’m not sure whey we’re funding the greenway with this at all,” said Commissioner Jerry NeSmith, suggesting greenway projects would find their way into regular special-purpose local option sales tax referendums.
The county is currently collecting a SPLOST, with those collections likely to continue through early 2020.
Other major downward adjustments to the committee’s TSPLOST recommendations considered by the commission Tuesday include:
- Trimming funding for pedestrian infrastructure improvements by $4.25 million, dropping the advisory committee’s $11.25 million recommendation to $7 million.
- Cutting committee-recommended outlays of more than $12.5 million for public transit improvements, including new bus purchases and improvements to bus stops, by more than $4.5 million.
- Cuts in funding for bicycle infrastructure improvements to $6 million, $1.5 million below the committee’s recommended allocation.
- In other discussion Tuesday, commissioners looked at adding some project proposals rejected by the advisory committee back onto the project list.
Proposals vetted by the advisory committee came from county government departments, local alternative transportation advocates, and individual citizens. The committee worked through an initial list of 36 projects, totaling more than $257 million in projected costs, to arrive at a 14-project list totaling slightly more than $104 million, the amount the tax is projected to raise during its five-year span if it wins voter approval in November.
Projects commissioners are considering adding back to a final list of recommended projects include the $7.4 million proposed for a massive roadway and pedestrian infrastructure improvement project in downtown Athens concentrated along Clayton Street. The project was included in a previous SPLOST initiative, but was abandoned after bids came in far higher than the amount then budgeted for the work.
If the $7.4 million in TSPLOST funds is steered toward the streetscape project, it would be augmented with $5 million in already-available SPLOST dollars.
It’s possible, though, that with county crews doing some of the work, bids for the project could come in at less than the rejected 2015 bid, Athens-Clarke County Manager Blaine Williams told commissioners Tuesday.
“We think we can do better,” Williams told commissioners, but the county’s plan remains to steer $12 million to the project.
“We don’t want to leave it short,” Williams said.
Other projects that commissioners are considering adding back into the proposed project list include:
- A $6 million outlay to replace the aging bridge over the railroad tracks on Tallassee Road near the Athens Perimeter.
- Slightly more than $1 million for traffic signal and traffic control replacement.
- A $2.5 million proposal to install a roundabout at Whitehall Road and South Milledge Avenue in the eastern edge of the county.
- A $5 million initiative to improve existing roadways across the county.
By the end of Tuesday’s informal discussion, commissioners had developed a recommended project list that falls within the anticipated TSPLOST revenue. If the levy is approved by voters in November, collections would begin in April 2018.