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Tuesday, August 30, 2011 - 1:40pm

Politics And Regional Transportation

Project wish lists for Georgia’s 12 transportation regions are almost complete. In 2012, voters will decide whether to pay a penny sales tax to fund the work.

The process of whittling-down the lists -- and convincing voters to support them -- is a challenge for municipalities trying to serve voters locally, and at the same time, support the region.

Near the intersection of State Route 52 in northwest Georgia just off Interstate-75, it's a typical weekday afternoon. And along this thoroughfare, one of the busiest in and out of Dalton, 'typical' often means gridlock. Just ask Whitfield County commission chairman Mike Babb, as he stands beside the intersection describing the traffic on a recent afternoon.

(Babb) "We have traffic signals for the exit ramps, we don't have any traffic signals for all the other entries here. We have the school students who will sometime come up here and take a right-hand and do a U-turn in the middle of the road coming down off the mountain. So it's a mess, especially during certain periods of the day."

Babb says this is a critical five-point intersection with an abundance of restaurants, motels, gas stations, and the main entry to Dalton State College. It’s one of the top projects on Whitfield County’s regional transportation list, and one he says his residents, and the region, needs.

Babb serves on the executive committee of the Northwest Regional Roundtable. Earlier this month the group approved 116 projects for the 15-county region, designed to fit within a budget of an expected $1.2 billion in revenue should voters approve a penny sales tax.

But getting voters and politicians to think beyond their local borders is the challenge. Babb says the roundtable had to come up with a list that would satisfy enough voters. That’s because it’s hard to convince people they’re getting their money’s worth, when a project is built in their region—but not their neighborhood.

(Babb) “Nobody would vote for it in Whitfield County if we were going to contribute $169 million over 10 years and only get $36 million in projects back.”

State transportation department planning director Todd Long visited all 12 roundtables with one message—let the county lines fade away, and think regionally.

(Long) “That’s where I’ve kind of had to step-in and say listen ‘In this district we’re doing this amount, it would be nice if you did this amount to help get it done’. For the most part, there wasn’t a major controversy in that area.”

But Babb says the message didn’t always get through.

(Babb) “We ‘hee-hawed’ him out of the room…that was quite a laughable statement if you’re a locally elected official. All politics are local, and when your voters are looking and saying ‘what’s this going to cost me and what’s my benefit’, you’ve got to be able to explain that.”

In east Georgia, Augusta commissioner Joe Jackson had to justify using more than 40-percent of funds for the Central Savannah River Area. His argument – the tax needs Augusta voters to pass, and if it passes, smaller counties reap the benefits too.

(Jackson) “We had several people on the front side who were thinking this was a conspiracy for just Richmond county and Columbia county. But we got rave reviews from the mayors and the council men and women who are on the roundtable, that we looked after the smaller communities.”

As Jackson discovered, ultimately local officials have no choice but to think regionally in order to truly fix transportation. After all, longtime Bartow County commissioner Clarence Brown of the northwest roundtable says this may be the best, last chance for meaningful transportation funding.

(Brown) “I’m not sure there will be another opportunity. I don’t know if our legislators would ever do something else. It took them a long time to do this.”

Whitfield’s Mike Babb says his county’s voters will pay-out more in tax then they’ll get in return for projects inside their borders. It’ll be a tough sell, but officials have their best pitch ready.

(Babb) “Nobody’s going to forget the county lines, but sometimes you have to help your neighbor to help yourself. So I think that’s how we’re going to sell it.”

Next month, each of the 12 regions will hold two public hearings on project lists. By October 15th, all roundtables will approve final lists to be presented for a referendum vote next year.