Sunday, March 27, 2011

Oconee County Commissioners Scheduled to Review T-SPLOST Project List

Clarke, Newton, Walton and Barrow Key

The Oconee County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to review at its agenda-setting meeting Tuesday night possible transportation projects to be included in a new sales tax referendum to go before voters in August of 2012.

Included on the list are seven major construction projects and nine smaller projects selected by Board Chairman Melvin Davis and three county administrators and three projects submitted by Watkinsville.

As of the end of the day on Friday, the deadline for the cities to submit their lists, Bishop, Bogart and North High Shoals had not submitted any projects, according to Alan Theriault, county administrative officer.

The BOC Tuesday night could modify the list, decide not to send forward any projects or even decide that Oconee County doesn’t want to participate in the T-SPLOST initiative.

Opting out of the tax, which would add 1 cent to the existing 7-cents-on-a-dollar sales tax already in place, is rather unlikely.

Wayne Provost, director of strategic and long-range planning for the county, told the Commissioners on March 1 that the county will get double the money from the state for its road projects compared to today if the tax is approved.

He also said the county will be penalized by reduced state funding for local roads if it doesn’t seek the tax or if voters don’t approve it.

Oconee County cannot act alone. The decision on participation in the referendum must be made in collaboration with the 11 other counties that form the special tax district for the referendum.

If the county is successful in getting some of the projects from the list it submits on the approved project list for the referendum, those would be funded by the sales tax, which, according to state estimates, will generate $1.5 billion in tax revenue each year.

Oconee County is lumped with Barrow, Clarke, Elbert, Greene, Jackson, Jasper, Madison, Morgan, Newton, Oglethorpe and Walton counties for purposes of the tax project.

All of those counties must agree on the final list to submit to voters, and a majority of voters in the 12-county district must approve in the August 2012 referendum for the tax to go into effect.

Completed Loop

The Oconee County list, with or without submissions from the four cities in the county, must be submitted to the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission by March 30. The list will be reviewed by the Regional Commission and then by the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The Executive Committee of what is called the Northeast Georgia Regional Roundtable will view the lists submitted by the 12 counties, match them with the expected revenue from the tax, and create the final list to be submitted back to the Roundtable and then to the voters.

The projects on the list approved by the Roundtable will be the ones to be funded by 75 percent of the tax revenue. The remaining 25 percent will be returned to the counties and cities for transportation projects, based on a formula reflecting road miles.

BOC Chairman Melvin Davis and Watkinsville Mayor Walter are on the regional Roundtable.

Davis is one of five members of that group elected to the Executive Committee at a meeting held on Dec. 7 of last year.

The other four are Hunter Bicknell from Jackson County, Kevin Little from Walton County, Kathy Morgan from Newton County and Billy Pittard from Oglethorpe County.

All five are commission chairs. At the Dec. 7 meeting, Bicknell was elected chair of the Executive Committee.

The Georgia House Transportation Committee has named two additional members of the executive committee (Rep. Tom McCall, Elbert County, and Rep. Len Walker, Walton County), and the Senate Transportation Committee has named one (Sen. Frank Ginn, Madison County). These three members are nonvoting.

The meeting on Tuesday night will be the second opportunity for Oconee County citizens to voice their opinions about the proposed list. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. in the courthouse in Watkinsville.

Citizens were given a chance to speak at the March 8 meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee after that Committee reviewed the list. It did not take any formal action on the proposed projects.

After the Northeast Roundtable Executive Committee creates its short list, but before the Roundtable takes a final vote, citizens will have two additional chances to comment on the list, according to the minutes of the Dec. 7 meeting. The details of the scheduling of those citizen meetings are not final.

The list of major projects created by Chairman Davis and the county administrators consists of the widening of Mars Hill Road and Experiment Station Road from SR 316 to Watkinsville (three phases), construction of a grade-separated interchange for SR 316 and the Oconee Connector, the widening of Jimmy Daniel Road from Mars Hill Road to the Clarke County line, the construction of an extension of Daniells Bridge Road with a flyover of SR 10 Loop, and the widening and reconstruction of US 441 to four lanes from the Watkinsville bypass to the Madison bypass.

The smaller projects, called safety improvement projects, are for Astondale Road, Barnett Shoals Road, Bob Godfrey Road, Clotfelter Road, Colham Ferry Road, Hodges Mill Road, Salem Road, Simonton Bridge Road, and Mars Hill/RockyBranch/Virgil Langford roads.

Mayor Walter told me, and Theriault confirmed, that Watkinsville is asking that three projects be added to the list.

The top Watkinsville project, Walter said, is a Simonton Bridge Connector, which would skirt downtown Watkinsville from the intersection of Experiment Station Road and Main Street to Simonton Bridge Road.

The second project is for a sidewalk on Harden Hill Road from New High Shoals Road to Main Street, and the third is a sidewalk on Simonton Bridge Road from Main Street to the city limits. These latter two would fall under the Bicycle and Pedestrian Program Area, Walter said.

At the Oconee County Land Use Committee meeting on March 8, citizens were presented only with the County list, and several voiced concern about the design of the Mars Hill Road widening and about the Daniells Bridge Road flyover.

The project description for the Daniells Bridge Road Extension calls for construction of an new road from just north of the Chestnut Hill Road intersection with Daniells Bridge Road to Jennings Mill Parkway, at Home Depot, across SR 10 Loop.

The new roadway would be four lanes wide, but it would intersect with and put traffic on the existing Daniells Bridge Road, which is only two lanes wide at that point.

County Director of Public Works Emil Beshara and Provost told the citizens at the March 8 meeting that the county would need to make improvements to Daniells Bridge Road should the project be funded, though those improvements are not included in the project description.

The Daniells Bridge Road Extension is listed as a $10 million project. Beshara said at the March 8 meeting he estimates the additional work needed to upgrade Daniells Bridge Road would cost another $20 million.

According to the project description Provost provided to the Land Use and Transportation Planning Committee, the Daniells Bridge Road Extension would relieve traffic from the SR 316 Loop 10 interchange and the SR 316 and Oconee Connector intersection “by providing an alternate route” to and from Watkinsville.

That route would be Daniells Bridge Road.

Beshara said at the March 8 meeting that traffic might be allowed to enter and leave SR Loop 10 at the flyover, adding additional traffic to Daniells Bridge Extension and to Daniells Bridge Road itself.

Daniells Bridge Road is three lanes wide from its intersection with the Oconee Connector to Founders Grove Boulevard, but it is only two lanes wide from that point to where it ends at Hog Mountain Road.

The county envisions the Daniells Bridge Road Extension as part of a commercial loop roadway around the SR 316 and Loop 10 interchange.

The northern part of that loop is currently under construction and is designed to open up additional land behind Lowe’s and Wal-Mart for commercial development.

That part of the project is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

In December of 2008, when the BOC rezoned property in the blind curve on Daniells Bridge Road just west of the proposed terminus of the Daniells Bridge Road Extension, Beshara told the Commission that the county did not have sufficient right of way to make Daniells Bridge Road four lanes wide through the blind curve.

He said that the better strategy would be to build a new roadway south of the existing road. That would require acquisition of property and cost $20 million, he acknowledged at the March 8 meeting.

The county has never released a map of such a road. The only one it has released (above) shows an upgraded Daniells Bridge Road following its existing path.

Four major subdivisions depend on Daniells Bridge Road for access: Founders Grove (and Settlers Ridge), with about 120 lots, Welbrook Farms (115 lots), Birchmore Hills (80 lots) and Lake Wellbrook (115 lots). All are largely built out.

Additional, smaller subdivisions are on Chestnut Hill Road and along Daniells Bridge Road.

I live in Welbrook Farms and was one of those who spoke at the March 8 meeting suggesting that the county either drop the Daniells Bridge Road Extension from its list or expand the project to fully upgrade Daniells Bridge Road.

Procedures for creation of the list of T-SPLOST projects are specified in House Bill 277, called the Transportation Investment Action, passed by the General Assembly last year and signed into law by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue in June.

Rep. Bob Smith and Sen. Bill Cowsert, representing Oconee County, voted for the bill.

The tax will apply to food and beverages, but it will not apply to fuel for motor vehicles or for off-road farm equipment. It also will not be placed on sale of jet fuel and the sale of energy for manufacturing.

If approved, the tax would start in 2013 and run for 10 years.

The sales tax was selected over an increase in the gas tax in part because people are driving more fuel efficient cars, carpooling and using mass transit, making the gas tax inadequate revenue source, according to the state web site created to explain the tax.

As of March 1, 2011, according to the Georgia Secretary of State records, 310,744 active voters were registered in the 12 counties that make up the Northeast Georgia T-SPLOST tax district.

Of those, only 6.8 percent are in Oconee County.

Clarke Count has 18.7 percent of the voters, followed by Newton with 17.9 percent, Walton with 15.5 percent and Barrow with 11.1 percent. In total, 63.2 percent of the active registered voters are from those four counties.
While Oconee County voters will have relatively limited impact on the vote outcome, they will pay the tax when they shop at home or in other counties in the district, if voters in the district approve it.

If it gets some projects from the county onto the list presented to voters, more of those tax dollars will come back to the county than if it does not.

That is why the list the BOC will review on Tuesday night is so important.