Photo by Curt Yeomans: Metro Atlanta voters will be asked, next year, to vote on approving a proposed regional sales tax project list designed to transform transportation infrastructure in a variety of areas and ways.
On Friday, Clayton County Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell painted the recently passed $6.14 billion projects list for a proposed one-cent regional sales tax as a sort of a savior for Clayton and Henry counties.
A day earlier, a 21-member Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) roundtable unanimously passed the projects list, which contains nearly half-a-billion dollars worth of transit and road improvements for the two counties.
The projects on the list, even some that are not specifically designated for any particular county, would fund both local and regional express bus services, pay for road-widening work, new roads, and get the ball rolling on, someday, creating a commuter rail service on the Southside.
“It [the project list] will keep us from becoming what the Northside has already become — gridlock,” said Bell, a roundtable member. He added that his county got “pretty much everything we wanted.”
The list approved by the roundtable will go before voters across the region for approval, next summer, during the state’s political party primaries for local and state offices.
Henry County Commission Chairman Elizabeth “B.J.” Mathis, a member of the regional roundtable’s executive committee, said the projects that made it onto the final list were chosen to address traffic and economic concerns in the 10-county metro-Atlanta transportation region.
“[They] were carefully selected, based on our need for congestion relief, economic development [and] job creation, and, in some cases, job preservation,” she said.
Bell said the process of creating the list, although arduous, has been good for the area. It brought together leaders in Cherokee, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fayette, Fulton, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale counties, and the City of Atlanta, to tackle an area-wide issue, with a regional mindset.
“I’m all but lost for words, because after all the difficulties that we have worked through, as a region, we’ve managed to come up with a responsible list,” he said.
The easiest way to look at the projects Clayton and Henry got is to break them down into four areas: Buses, road-widenings, new roads, and rail.
Both counties had an interest in seeing funding for buses, albeit in different forms. Clayton County officials sought local bus service, to replace the old C-Tran service that was shut down a year-and-a-half ago. Henry County leaders, meanwhile, wanted to ensure that Georgia Regional Transportation Authority’s (GRTA) Xpress bus service, which shuttles residents from outlying counties to Atlanta, was fully funded.
In the end, both counties got what they wanted.
Clayton County got a $100 million allocation to start up a new bus service — which county transportation officials have already said will be created based on lessons learned from C-Tran, which officials have admitted, did not serve enough of the county. It shut down because of funding issues.
Local bus service could be an economic boon for the county, according to Bell. If the sales tax is passed by voters, “We expect to see 300 jobs directly created, and an additional 2,000 jobs indirectly created in the area, through the rebirth of bus service in Clayton County,” he said.
The roundtable also passed an amendment, introduced by Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Worthan and seconded by Mathis, that would help maintain full funding for the Xpress bus service. The amendment passed unanimously, and as Mathis said, “took care of those concerns.”
Road-widening projects in Henry County make up the lion’s share ($146 million) of the $183.5 million allocated for Henry on the sales tax list. Road-widenings on U.S. Hwy. 23/Ga. Hwy. 42 ($44 million); Ga. Hwy. 155 ($48 million); Ga. Hwy. 81 ($27 million); and Bill Gardner Parkway, make up a total of $146 million of the county’s allocation.
Road-widening projects in Clayton County make up a smaller percentage (only $76 million) of that county’s allocation ($313.17 million). Those projects include the widenings of: Conley Road, from Interstate 285, to Ga. Hwy. 54 ($28.5 million); Ga. Hwy. 85, from Pointe South Parkway, to Roberts Drive ($22.2 million); Ga. Hwy. 85, from Adams Drive, to Interstate 75 ($17.2 million), and Ga. Hwy. 54, from McDonough Road (in Fayette County), to Tara Boulevard ($8.1 million).
New roads, and road transformations
There are also some new roads, and road-transformation projects on the list for both counties. The biggest of which is the $102.17 million transformation of Tara Boulevard (from I-75, to Battle Creek Road) into a “super arterial” highway, where motorists who are just passing through the area on their way to Atlanta, or to southern Clayton County or Henry County would be able to travel unimpeded by traffic lights.
There is also a $15 million, new “Jonesboro Connector,” which would cut along the south side of the city, from Tara Boulevard, to Lake Jodeco Road; and Henry County’s $17 million “Western Parallel Connector,” which would stretch from Hudson Bridge Road, to Ga. Hwy. 920.
The ARC’s project list for Henry also includes $11 million for the extension of Ga. Highways 20 and 81, in McDonough, from Jonesboro Road, at the Norfolk Southern Railroad line, to Lemon Street.
“I see us being able to make our streets and roadways safer to travel on, for our citizens,” Bell said.
Henry County’s allocation also includes $9.5 million for interchange improvements at Interstate 75-South and Bill Gardner Parkway. Tim Young, community development director for Locust Grove, described the improvements as a “key project” for the city. “What it will do is put additional travel lanes underneath, and additional turning lanes — especially the southbound lanes coming off from Atlanta, heading eastbound,” said Young. “That’s our biggest bottleneck that we see, and it’s definitely our most regional project, because it serves both Tanger Outlet Center, where we generate most of our sales tax revenue, and our new Walmart.
The final area of the local allocations — $20 million in commuter rail planning — is a project that has more to do with planning for future transportation improvements, rather than bringing about immediate change. The funds included on the project list would pay for planning, engineering and rail-readiness work that Bell has said would make the proposed Atlanta-to-Griffin commuter rail line “shovel ready.”
The line is part of a longer, proposed Atlanta-to-Macon commuter line, that could someday be extended to Savannah. If Clayton County officials can get the planning funds secured through the regional sales tax, they hope that will put them in line to get additional funding to eventually build the entire line, within the next decade, according to Bell.
“I don’t want our citizens to feel discouraged that we did not get all of the funding we wanted for that rail line,” Bell said. “I would rather be able to do some thorough planning for this project [than get the rail line created quickly].”
Putting on a soothsayer’s cap, Bell later added: “I see the rail line being able to get running, hopefully before 2020, so our people can use it to get to Clayton State [University, in Morrow] or to the racetrack [Atlanta Motor Speedway, in Hampton].” He added that he will be working with Mathis, to get an intergovernmental agreement in place between Clayton and Henry counties, regarding the commuter rail project.
“I am hopeful it goes as smoothly as the [recent] negotiations to sell the airport [Tara Field] to Henry County,” Bell said.
Selling the sales tax to voters
Bell said it is possible to convince local voters to support the sales tax, but he added that county and regional leaders will have to be up front with the public, about how the money is going to be spent. He said voters will have to believe leaders are being truthful with them, before they cast their votes in favor of the tax.
“You want the citizens to feel you are being transparent, and introduced to everything we are doing throughout the process,” Bell said. He added that there will be a regional Citizens Advisory Group set up to monitor the use of the tax funds, to make sure they are being spent properly.