VALDOSTA — City and county agree: for better roads, less traffic congestion and more jobs, a regional T-SPLOST needs to happen.
Lowndes County Commission Chairman Bill Slaughter and Valdosta Mayor John Gayle both sit on the executive committee for T-SPLOST, which recently finalized the transportation project list for 18 counties.
T-SPLOST stands for transportation special purpose local option sales tax.
The 150 transportation projects on the list, including nine for Valdosta and 12 for Lowndes County, would be funded by the regional T-SPLOST if voters approve it in a May 22 election. The 1-cent tax is expected to generate more than $296 million across the 18 counties to pay for the projects.
"These are good projects," Gayle said. "And getting this passed is the only way they are going to get done."
One of the projects that made the list is installing an overpass on St. Augustine Road, which bottlenecks every morning and afternoon. Gayle said he gets regular calls of people rumbling about trains blocking traffic.
Slaughter said Lowndes County has a project to widen Old Clyattville Road west of the interstate where the four-lane stops all the way down past Wild Adventures Theme Park to Ousley Road. Briggston Road, which connects Old Clyattville Road and Madison Highway, would get paved, making it easier to get in and out of the theme park.
"This accomplishes two things," Slaughter said. "One is that it boosts an economic engine with Wild Adventures and eliminates the rail-crossing issue farther up the road at St. Augustine."
The completion of each of these projects would create many jobs, and once the projects are done, with a stronger infrastructure, there would be a boon to the economy, the chairman and mayor agreed.
"It's an economical development creator," Gayle said. "The better roads we have, the better transportation we have, the more people will look at us."
However, history shows not everyone is in favor of a regional T-SPLOST. The region voted down the tax in 2012. This means city and counties in favor of the cent tax are historically fighting an uphill battle.
"The fact of the matter is that you're going to always have people just against raising taxes – period," said Paige Dukes, county clerk and public information officer. "Then you have other naysayers who just want the money to stay local. They don't want the money to leave Lowndes County."
The vote is further complicated by this being a regional T-SPLOST. A majority of 18 counties must approve it.
Some counties have already expressed a dislike for it. It’s possible the tax could pass for the region as a whole even if several counties vote against it. If it passes, the tax will still be added to the counties that voted against it.
In Valdosta/Lowndes County, the sales tax would increase from 7 cents to 8 cents on the dollar. There are already three other local option taxes within the 7 cents Valdosta and Lowndes County residents are paying now.
The chairman and mayor argued this T-SPLOST should be seen as an investment in the city and county's infrastructure. As far as money leaving the county, Slaughter said most of the money would stay in Lowndes and go toward their projects. For the money that does leave the county, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.
In South Georgia, Valdosta/Lowndes County is seen as a regional hub, and helping the region can only benefit the county and Valdosta in the long run, Gayle said. Many of the smaller counties have no other option when it comes to raising money for projects.
Regardless of how much helping neighboring counties would benefit the local economy, Slaughter and Gayle said the only thing that matters is what the voters think. The planning process for the regional T-SPLOST will be complete Feb. 21. After that, the executive committee will enter into the marketing phase, selling the tax and its benefits to the public.
The mayor and chairman said they are confident it will pass this year. They have spent a year working with other counties and drafting projects they believe will best help the county and city thrive.
"We have to convince the voters to look at this from a sensible and realistic basis," Gayle said. "If they want our city and county to move forward, they have to get out of this doom and gloom mentality. They have to look at what the future could bring, and these types of projects will bring us much closer to that future, one we can all be proud of."
Thomas Lynn is a government and education reporter for The Valdosta Daily Times. He can be reached at (229)244-3400 ext. 1256