Buckhead Community Improvement District Executive Director Jim Durrett spent most of his time at the July 12 Buckhead Business Association answering skeptical questions from the business community about the Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax.
The transportation tax referendum, which would impose a 1-cent sales tax over a 10-county area to pay for $8.5 billion in road projects, faces opposition from across the political spectrum. The Tea Party, local chapters of the NAACP and the Sierra Club are all opposed to it.
The public will get to vote on it July 31, and early voting is underway.
Durrett said his goal wasn’t to reach those who already made up their minds.
“I’m working on people who are undecided,” he said, responding to a question about why there wasn’t a vote on the project list. “The public did have input on these projects, absolutely on these projects and you have input on them right now by voting (on July 31.) If you don’t like them, vote no.”
The BBA members’ questions kept Durrett on his toes.
Will the project cut pollution? Will the sales-tax end after 10 years as political leaders claim? Did the project list take into account the needs of the so-called Silver Tsunami, the exploding population of Baby Boomers reaching retirement age?
His answers: there are projects aimed at getting people out of cars, the law specifically states the tax will end and the project list considers not only the aging Baby Boomer population but the generations coming after it.
The list of 157 projects, he said, was developed by a coalition of regional leaders that took into account public comments.
Durrett said the two projects most important to Buckhead are improving Piedmont Road from the Lindbergh area to Roswell Road, which will include traffic upgrades and bus rapid transit, and improving the intersection of Collier Road and Peachtree. The project list includes $20.4 million for safety improvements to State Route 9, which includes Roswell and Peachtree roads, and nearly $700 million for improvements to Georgia 400 and Interstate 285, according to the Atlanta Regional Commission.
The TSPLOST supporters are backed by a well-funded media campaign called Untie Atlanta and support from nearly every top leader in the state, including Gov. Nathan Deal. Business owners are encouraging their employees to vote “yes.”
Durrett stressed there will be oversight of the money. The Georgia Department of Transportation and the Georgia Regional Transportation Authority are tasked with keeping the projects under budget and on time. There will also be a citizens’ oversight committee with the power to audit projects, he said.
Local governments will also receive 15 percent of the TSPLOST money for discretionary spending.
“If a project comes in under budget, the money that is saved can’t be shifted to another project,” Durrett said. “It will go into the 15 percent pot.”
And what if a project goes over-budget?
Durrett said the projects have been budgeted with contingencies and the citizens’ advisory committee will catch overspending before it gets out of hand.
“These suckers are going to be managed to budget,” Durrett said. “If it looks like something is getting out of whack, then it’s all hands on deck.”
BBA President Catherine Cattles thanked Durrett for his presentation and for taking the heat from audience members who are opposed to the sales tax.
“You actually answered questions,” Cattles said. “At least we had someone who had some answers. Some other speakers did not.”
More from the July 12 BBA meeting: