TSPLOST committee makes headway in negotiations

By SARAH FAY CAMPBELL sarah@newnan.com The executive committee working on a list of projects to be funded with a transportation sales tax came to an agreement Thursday on how to divide the money. The executive committee of the Three Rivers Transportation Roundtable met Thursday in Sharpsburg to determine how to divide the estimated $860 million, adjusted for inflation, that would be collected over the life of the 10-year, 1 percent sales tax in the 10-county Three Rivers Regional Commission.
The full roundtable will consider the most recent methodology at a meeting Monday at 9 a.m. in Turin. If approved by the roundtable, the "draft constrained investment list" will be submitted to the Georgia Department of Transportation. After that, there will be at least two public hearings on the draft list. A final list must be approved by the roundtable by Oct. 15. The transportation sales tax will then go before the voters in 2012. The vote is currently scheduled for the summer general election primary, though there is a movement to have that date changed to the November general election. Under the approved methodology, Coweta County would get back 100 percent of the sales tax money it contributes to the region over the life of the tax -- at least under current calculations. Though the executive committee agreed on a new plan, it doesn't have a definitive list yet because one of the items voted on Thursday was to take $10 million off the top to pay administrative and management fees. Under the alternate "100 percent" funding methodology, there would be $16 million remaining after funding is assigned to various projects. Of that, $10 million would be used for administration and management, with the other $6 million helping fund the Hwy. 36 widening and realignment project in Upson and Lamar counties. The $16 million essentially comes from the leftover funds allocated to Pike, Meriwether, and Heard counties, which do not have enough approved projects on the list to use all their funding. By taking the administration/management funds out of that pool, Heard, Pike, and Meriwether are essentially paying the administrative costs for all 10 counties, said Barnesville City Manager Kenny Roberts. If the administration/management funding were taken off the top, it would be equally shared by all counties. Under the Transportation Investment Act of 2010, which created the TSPLOST process, 75 percent of the estimated proceeds of the 10-year tax is to be used to pay for an "investment list" of projects. The other 25 percent will be distributed to the member counties and cities by a formula based on road miles and population. The 25 percent is "discretionary funding" that can be used for any transportation-related purpose. The total amount of money expected to be available to do projects on the list is $624 million in 2011. (The actual total is $711 million, but that number was adjusted to $624 million to correct for inflation and the expected rise in the cost of road projects.) The sticking point in the discussions has been the funding of the expensive Hwy. 36 project. That project would serve Upson and Lamar counties and a tiny part of Butts County. The total estimated cost to widen and realign the road from Thomaston to Interstate 75 is $145 million. For Lamar and Upson to get that funding, the remaining counties would have to give up substantial funding, and that was unacceptable to some of the larger counties in the region. If the project were fully funded, Upson County would get approximately 211 percent of the sales tax money raised within its boarders and Lamar would get 302 percent. At last week's executive committee meeting, chairman Ricky Wolfe, who is also chairman of the Troup County Board of Commissioners, said Troup County would be willing to give up guaranteed federal funding of $75 million, which is set aside for a project that is considered a low priority by Troup County, so that the money could go to Hwy. 36. Wolfe and others met with Todd Long, the state DOT director of planning, earlier this week to discuss the issue. Long has committed $30 million in federal funding to the Hwy. 36 project. Long said he thinks $30 million will cover the environmental document and engineering/design for the entire project, as well as the right-of-way for the Barnesville-to-I-75 section, which is considered the more important. Upson County would get $31 million toward the Hwy. 36 project and Lamar would get $19 million, under the approved methodology. That plus the $30 million in federal funds and the extra $10 million from the unallocated funds totals $91 million, or approximately 63 percent of the total cost of the project. Before the end of the meeting, and the $10 million change, everyone was looking at $81 million for the Hwy. 36 project. "It is not $145 million but it is $81 million, and for $81 million, we can get a lot of the work done on that project," said Robert Hiett, government services director for Three Rivers and staff liaison for the roundtable. "The $81 million takes you to a point in the entire corridor that is pivotal to the project," said David Millen, district preconstruction engineer for DOT. "If you get the environmental documents for the entire corridor you have gotten to a milestone." The counties can also put some of their discretionary funding toward the project. Hayes Arnold, mayor of Thomaston in Upson County, made the motion to approve the "alternate 100 percent" methodology with the $10 million coming off the top. The vote was unanimous. Hiett will now have to go back and run the scenarios once more, using $614 million instead of $624 -- in time to present that to the roundtable on Monday. The issue was further complicated by disagreements between DOT officials and Hiett over calculating the "percent returned." That percentage is meant to show what each county will get back from the sales tax, including both funded projects and the discretionary money, compared to what each county will contribute by sales within its borders. Though the state economist gave all regions a forecast of how much money was expected to be raised in each region through each year of the tax, the state and the DOT would not break those numbers down by county. To estimate a county-by-county breakdown, Hiett took the amount of Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax money collected in each county in 2010 and added all that together to get a regional total. He then determined what percentage of that whole each county contributed and used those numbers to determine each county's "fair share." Long and the DOT representatives said Thursday they want to see the funding calculated to be something equal to what each county would raise if it had its own TSPLOST. Those numbers will be somewhat different because of inflation. Hiett said he would re-run the numbers by Monday.

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