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CITY TALK: Transportation tax vote could bring complicated decision

State lawmakers are considering major pieces of legislation that could have significant impacts for Savannah.

As regular readers of this newspaper know, legislators might vote to allow some sort of casino gambling in the state. In recent years, Savannah has been discussed as a possible casino location, so we need to follow the various proposals closely.

If a casino bill appears headed for Gov. Deal’s desk, I’ll devote one or more columns to the issue.

State lawmakers are also revisiting the issue of transportation funding. Under a freshly reinforced T-SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax for transportation), individual counties would be able to secure long-term funding for infrastructure projects.

A lot of things need to fall into place between here and there, but Chatham County voters could soon face another T-SPLOST vote.

In 2012, voters along the Georgia coast turned down a regional 1 percent T-SPLOST, which would have by law mandated the eventual completion of a specific, heavily vetted list of projects. The tax was supported in some areas, but Chatham voters rejected it by 57 to 43 percent.

Given the defeat of the previous referendum on a transportation sales tax, would a new T-SPLOST have any chance of passage?

The new proposed tax might have several things working in its favor.

For starters, the 2012 vote was held at a time when the local economy was still struggling to escape a deep recession. The so-called “Great Recession” officially ended in the summer of 2009, but many sectors and thousands of households faced years of difficult recovery.

Also, while it made sense for a new transportation sales tax to be applied regionally rather than just in individual counties, some voters were clearly uncomfortable with the bureaucratic reach of the 2012 referendum.

And many voters doubted that key projects would in fact be completed, despite language in the referendum that required completion as a matter of law.

On top of all that, many voters objected to specific items on the project list that they found counterproductive, unnecessary or too costly. Some voters dismissed the very idea of the removal of the I-16 ramp over Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, even though others of us see that as a project that will spur private investment and actually improve mobility in the Historic District.

After the failure of the regional T-SPLOST referenda in most areas of the state, Georgia leaders in 2015 raised gas taxes and hotel taxes to fund transportation, but it seemed clear at the time that the additional funds would not meet the growing needs throughout the state.

Will local voters view T-SPLOST differently than they did in 2012? Has anything happened in the past five years that would change the outcome at the polls?

We’ve heard intensified calls over the past few years for major improvements to U.S. Highway 80 on the way to Tybee. During the debate five years ago, I argued in this column that an expensive project like that, no matter how much it were needed for safety, might get delayed indefinitely if voters aren’t willing to foot the bill.

I’d make the same argument today, but will voters see the issue the same way?

It’s also worth noting that the local economy is stronger in 2017 than in 2012, which might make some voters more likely to vote yes on a sales tax increase.

But will there be a specific project list, so voters know exactly what will be done with their money?

Will we be able to use the tax revenue for transit operations and not just transit infrastructure?

Will there be funding for bicycling infrastructure, which costs extremely little compared to other types of transportation infrastructure?

If the new T-SPLOST is less than 1 percent, will officials find the right balance between revenue and proposed projects? The omission of too many desired projects could doom the future referendum, even if some voters are more likely to vote for, say, a 0.5 percent sales tax than a 1 percent sales tax.

I was a lonely public voice supporting the 2012 T-SPLOST, but that’s no guarantee I will back a future referendum. There are just too many unanswered questions at this point.

On the other hand, we have critical needs, like improvements to the road to Tybee. We might once again have to choose between a problematic funding mechanism and no funding mechanism at all.

City Talk appears every Tuesday and Sunday. Bill Dawers can be reached via billdawers@comcast.net. Send mail to 10 E. 32nd St., Savannah, Ga. 31401.

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