In about three weeks the fate of one of the most important - and costly - programs in state history will be known.
All July 31 primary ballots will include a special election referendum that reads:
"Northwest Georgia District T-SPLOST
(Vote for One)
Provides for local transportation projects to create jobs, improve roads and safety with citizen oversight.
Shall Catoosa County's transportation system and the transportation network in this region and the state be improved by providing for a 1 percent special district transportation sales and use tax for the purpose of transportation projects and programs for a period of ten years?"
TSPLOST (Transportation Investment Act Regional Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) is similar but different from the variety of optional sales taxes - LOST, SPLOST, ESPLOST - already being collected in Catoosa County.
Like the other optional taxes, TSPLOST would be a penny-per-dollar surcharge added to all retail sales except for fuel.
Like SPLOST (Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax), which funds an agreed-on list of capital projects for county and city governments, or ESPLOST (Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax), which funds capital projects for education, TSPLOST would fund a particular list of transportation-related projects.
Unlike SPLOST and ESPLOST, the transportation tax could pay for maintenance as well as construction of road, bridge or other infrastructure projects. In this regard TSPLOST is like LOST (Local Option Sales Tax) collections that help fund operating budgets.
Two ways that TSPLOST differs most from other optional taxes are: where it would be collected and for how long. Rather than on a county-by-county basis, TSPLOST is a regional tax, and, if adopted by a majority of voters throughout the region, will be in place for 10 years.
Catoosa County belongs to the Northwest Georgia region, which includes 14 additional counties: Bartow, Chattooga, Dade, Fannin, Floyd, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk, Walker and Whitfield.
Representatives from each of the region's counties and 49 municipalities met last year to draft a wish list of projects. After public hearings, a final list was submitted to the Georgia Department of Transportation. Region 1's list was approved in October 2011 and carries an estimated price tag of $1.2 billion over a decade.
State Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, believes tax increases should be decided by voters and is a strong supporter of TSPLOST.
"This is a list created by local officials that reflects local needs," he said.
Revenue from TSPLOST will be divided among the counties using a formula that weighs population and road-miles within each county. Each county must dedicate 75 percent of its shared revenue to the specific project list approved during the referendum. This work will be done by Georgia Department of Transportation.
Members of the Northwest Georgia Planning Commission recently visited Walker and Catoosa counties to answer questions about the upcoming referendum and how it will benefit individual counties, the region and the state.
David Kennamer, principal planner with the Planning Commission, said the greatest misconception about TSPLOST is that the money collected would go to Atlanta for determination of how and where it would be spent. That notion is wrong, he said.
"People don't understand the process," Kennamer said.
Ed Painter, of Whitfield County, attended the TSPLOST informational meeting held at The Colonnade the night of the Tea Party-sponsored sheriff's debate to voice his opposition to the referendum.
"The mechanism is flawed," Painter said of TSPLOST's enabling legislation. "What looked so good at inception is now being second guessed."
Local governments are required to match state funds for maintenance projects. If a region's voters reject the referendum on July 31, the local match for cities and counties to receive matching funds is 30 percent. If the referendum passes, the required match is set at 10 percent.
"The voters are being held captive," Painter said. "It is bribery. It is extortion."
While agreeing that there is a huge need for improving the state's infrastructure - it is the third-fastest growing state yet ranks 49th in per-capita spending on transportation - Painter said if TSPLOST is such a good idea "the state could have sold the program."
He also voiced the opinion that the referendum creates a regional government, one that is without accountability.
"This is nothing but fertilizer for corruption," he said.
Others disagree, saying regional responsibility overseen by an oversight committee of non-elected officials is better than having lawmakers, politicians and bureaucrats monitor spending. An annual audit will also report on each individual project's progress and budget.
"All TSPLOST funds raised in Region 1 will stay in Region 1," Kennamer said.
And at a time when revenue from fuel taxes is steadily declining, having TSPLOST funds can mean local repaving projects can be measured annually in miles rather than feet for the incorporated and unincorporated areas of Catoosa County.
In the years 2013-2022, officials project TSPLOST will provide $1.49 billion in funding for the 15-county Northwest Georgia region. For Catoosa, about $53.6 million would be dedicated to:
Candy Lane Extension; Dietz Road widening; Mack Smith Road widening and enhancements; Mineral Avenue widening; South Cedar Lane widening; Ga. 151 passing lanes; and U.S. 41 milling at CSX underpass.
A complete list of projects and a timeline for their implementation can be viewed online at www.velag.org/1_northwest-invlist.pdf.