By Valerie Baldowski
The recent passage of House Bill 277 will mean that residents across the state, including those in Henry County, will get an opportunity to vote on projects and proposals that could help solve the transportation problems in their regions.
The bill passed in the House of Representatives, 149 to 18, on March 3, and in the Senate, 52 to 3, on March 23.
The legislation will divide the state into 12 regions, with a "roundtable" of local, elected officials in each region, who will work with state Director of Planning Todd Long, according to State Rep. Steve Davis (R-McDonough). Henry County will be included in one of the regions, said Davis.
The members of the "roundtable" will choose transportation-related projects for their region, then submit the list to voters for their approval, along with a one-cent sales tax to fund the projects, said Davis.
The referendums will mostly likely take place during the 2012 general primaries, Davis said, to allow each region to "set its priorities and project list."
Davis, who voted for the bill, acknowledged that the legislation has some flaws, but overall, it will benefit Henry County. "It's going to help us," he said. "It's got its pluses and minuses. There is no opt-out, which is a negative."
The up-side, he said, is that Henry County will have equal representation with larger counties. Each region will have two representatives, he said. "We have the same representation as Cobb, DeKalb, and Gwinnett [counties]," he continued. "Equal representation was a big thing for us, and we got that put into the bill."
Henry County Commission Chairman Elizabeth "B.J." Mathis, who is serving on the Atlanta Regional Commission, said she supports what she believes the bill will be able to accomplish.
"The passage of this is critical for our county and region," said Mathis. "We are choking on congestion, and measures must be taken to solve our own problems, rather than looking to Washington for that.
"Every day that we delay could potentially cost us jobs," she said, "as many companies will locate in areas where congestion is better addressed. Hopefully, the voters will agree when the proposal is placed on the ballot."
Mathis said some of the greatest transportation needs in Henry include: Widening Interstate 75 from Locust Grove to the Clayton County line; improvements to I-75 and I-675; widening Ga. Highway 155 from the interstate to Spalding County; and widening Ga. Highway 42 from Butts County to Clayton County.
"All projects are important, and should be prioritized, based on the greatest impact for congestion relief," added Mathis. "This can easily be determined by traffic counts."
State Rep. John Lunsford (R-McDonough), who also voted for the bill, said HB 277 will get the job done. "It wasn't a perfect piece of legislation, but there is no such animal," said Lunsford. Legislators have been working on a transportation bill for the past three years, and when the bill finally went up for a vote, most were in agreement, he said.
Some legislators did not approve of the regions in which their counties were grouped, but Lunsford said, overall, the legislation is sound. "It was a good place to start," he added.
Henry County Chamber of Commerce President Kay Pippin said the Henry chamber has been working with other chambers of commerce for the past five years on the issue of transportation, including chambers in Cherokee, Coweta, Douglas, and Rockdale counties.
"This isn't a quick fix," she said, "but we're certainly closer to having the money we need to address our transportation problems."