Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tiny City of Bishop Puts Most Expensive Project on Oconee County T-SPLOST List

A Bypass at That

Tiny Bishop won the Oconee County T-SPLOST list sweepstakes.

With only 224 residents, the smallest of the county’s four cities landed a project worth $175 million on the list the county submitted for possible inclusion as part of the August 2012 referendum on a regional transportation sales tax increase.

That $175 million project–the widening of U.S. 441 to four lanes in the southern part of the county with a bypass of Bishop–accounts for nearly half of the total $370 million in projects submitted by the county at the end of the month to the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission and the Georgia Department of Transportation.

The Oconee list is for regional projects to be covered by the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, and it has to be merged with similar requests for regional projects from the other 11 counties in the Northeast Georgia region.

Whether the Bishop project survives the NEGRC and GDOT review process and then the political negotiations to create the final list for voter approval is quite another matter. The widening of U.S. 441 was stricken from and then reinserted on the Oconee County list at the last minute.

Oconee County joins Barrow, Clarke, Elbert, Greene, Jackson, Jasper, Madison, Morgan, Newton, Oglethorpe and Walton counties to form the district.

Oconee submitted a regional list on March 30 containing eight capital projects, 12 safety improvement projects, and six projects inside the cities. Included were three projects for Watkinsville, two for Bogart and the Bishop project.

North High Shoals did not submit a project.

The total cost of the 26 Oconee County and city regional projects was $369,809,398.

The state is projecting that the one-cent-on-a-dollar transportation sales tax, if it is approved by voters in the 12-county Northeast Georgia region, will generate between $957,978,000 (low estimate) and $1,024,753,000 (base estimate) between 2013 and 2022.

But only 75 percent of those funds are to be allocated to regional projects of the sort on the Oconee County list. The remaining 25 percent is to be allocated to counties using a formula based on road miles.

Oconee officials have estimated the county would get more than $1 million through this direct allocation.

The 26 Oconee County projects would absorb 48.1 percent of the base estimate of $768,564,750.00 for regional projects and 51.5 percent of the low estimate of $718,483,500.

Obviously, Oconee County, with only 6.8 percent of the registered voters in the 12-county region, is unlikely to see its full list of 26 projects make the final project list for the tax.

The Athens Banner-Herald reported on April 4 that the 12 counties have submitted more than 150 projects that would cost about $2 billion to complete, or more than 2.5 times the money likely to be available.

The decision on which regional projects from the 12 counties get on the list will be made by the Northeast Georgia Regional Roundtable, made up the chairman of the commission in each county and one mayor from each county.

Oconee BOC Chairman Melvin Davis and Watkinsville Mayor Joe Walter represent Oconee County.

The executive committee of the Roundtable will make the first screening, and Davis was elected to that group at a meeting held in Oconee County on Dec. 7 of last year.

Projects that survive the review might well be those that appeal to voters in the most populous counties, and Oconee County is at an advantage if that is the case.

SR 316 and U.S. 441 both serve Athens-Clarke County, the largest county in the region with 18.7 percent of the registered voters.

Three of Oconee’s projects are grade-separated interchanges on SR 316, which links Athens to Atlanta. These would be at the Oconee Connector Extension, Jimmy Daniell Road, and at a new roadway to Bogart that would intersect SR 316 between McNutt Creek Road and Pete Dickens Road. The total cost estimate for the three is $85 million.

The widening of U.S. 441 would provided upgraded access between Athens-Clarke and Morgan, Newton and Jasper counties in the southwest of the transportation district. Newton is the second most populous of the 12 counties in the district.

It also is possible the Roundtable might try to pick popular projects in each of the counties. Oconee’s top project was the widening of Mars Hill Road from SR 316 to Watkinsville. Cost for that project is $66.6 million.

A committee made up of Davis, Wayne Provost, director of strategic and long-range planning for Oconee County, County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault, and Public Works Director Emil Beshara created the first list of projects that was presented to the BOC on March 1.

At its March 29 meeting, the BOC added the two interchange upgrades on SR 316 but struck the U.S. 441 widening.

Provost, after that decision was made, said the city of Bishop might not be happy with the exclusion of the U.S. 441 project.

Provost suggested, and Davis agreed, that Bishop should be given a chance to make a last-minute submission.

According to Theriault, Bishop added the project back to the list before it was sent to the state on March 30.

If included on the final list submitted to voters by the Regional Roundtable and then approved by voters in the referendum, each of the 224 citizens of Bishop would have brought the county $781,250 in road tax money.

That would be quite a reward for insisting on getting a project onto the county's T-SPLOST list.