Fayette’s 2 roundtable reps switch positions on voting power

County and city governments in 10 metro Atlanta counties — including Fayette — can now start pitching transportation projects for funding through a potential regional sales tax that will seek voter approval in 2013.

The projects will be voted on next October by a 21-member Regional Transportation Roundtable, which will have the power to add and remove projects from a “first draft” list that will be compiled by a five-member executive committee that consists of five roundtable members.

Whatever list is approved by the full roundtable will constitute the final list for funding that voters will be considering on the July 2013 referendum.

The stakes are big. If approved region-wide, the tax will accrue an estimated $7 billion over 10 years.

A consequence of the region-wide vote is that even if Fayette votes down the tax, it would still be assessed here if the project is approved by a majority vote of voters in the aggregate 10-county area.

Most likely tops on Fayette’s transportation wish list is some sort of fix for the interchange at Interstate 85 and Ga. Highway 74, which is clogged during morning and evening commutes with commuters from Peachtree City, Tyrone, points south and west in Coweta County and also with trucks and other traffic from nearby homes and warehouses in south Fulton County.

But because projects funded by the 10-year potential tax must be at such a stage they can be executed quickly, there is some question as to whether an interchange fix can be performed in time. The interchange is actually inside south Fulton County.

Fayette’s current representatives on the 21-member roundtable are Fayetteville Mayor Ken Steele and outgoing Fayette County Commission Chairman Jack Smith, who will be replaced early next year by whomever is elected chairman by the commission at its first January meeting.

At Friday’s meeting the roundtable approved the criteria by which the various transportation projects in the region will be judged for consideration. Among those criteria was language that the project list “should demonstrate regional equity in order to ensure it attracts the support of voters from the entire region.”

The criteria further states the equity will be measured in the impacts of projects and not by dollar figures.

By virtue of the creating legislation for the regional sales tax, some 15 percent of the estimated $7 billion revenue will be divided up among the cities and counties in the region based on a formula that calculates population compared to the entire region (20 percent) and the total number of road miles, both paved and unpaved (80 percent).

State officials are hopeful that local communities will make concrete plans on how to spend their “15 percent” revenues that would be helpful in trying to convince voters to support the tax. Those revenues will come without strings attached and can be spent on any local transportation project, regardless whether it benefits the regional network or not.

Although congestion relief on roads will be one focus of the roundtable, some of the money can also be invested in transit capital and transit operations and maintenance in addition to categories such as aviation, freight and logistics, and safety and traffic operations among others.

In fact, according to an appendix attached to the guidelines, up to 50 percent of the revenues will be spent on roadway capital projects, compared to up to 15 percent safety and traffic operations.

Meanwhile, up to 40 percent can be spent on transit capital and up to 20 percent on transit operations and maintenance.

If the sales tax is approved, the Georgia Department of Transportation will be responsible for road projects, while the Georgia Regional Transit Authority will be responsible for the transit projects, according to State Transportation Director Todd Long.

“You have to be able to deliver value to taxpayers, or they’re not going to vote for it,” Long said, adding that the projects should be considered based on whether they can be delivered within the 10-year tax timeframe.

Long also said that the project list needs to be balanced between various modes of transportation.

“Atlanta is a great place to live because we made the hard decisions 30-40 years ago to build an incredible roadway network and transit system,” Long said. “The problem is in the past 20 years we stopped investing in them at a high level.”

At Friday’s roundtable meeting, Steele and Smith reversed course on their initial suggestion for selecting the roundtable’s executive committee. At last month’s meeting they urged breaking the roundtable into five groups of two counties each, with each group electing its own member of the executive committee.

At the time, Smith and Steele shared their concern that smaller counties like Fayette should be represented on the executive committee to make sure their interests were protected.

Instead on Friday they argued successfully that a simple majority vote would suffice to elect the roundtable’s executive committee.

Steele pointed out that the full 21 voting members of the roundtable will have the final say on the project list, so he felt comfortable in the entire process that his initial concerns about smaller county representation were moot.

Smith noted that the legislation creating the roundtable has balances built in, including a provision that forbids any one county from having two officials on the roundtable.

“And I think those in themselves are going to lead to giving us a more balanced regional executive committee,” Smith said.

After some considerable discussion from the entire roundtable, it was ultimately approved to go ahead with the majority vote for the executive committee. Subsequently, each roundtable member submitted five votes for the people they would most like to see on the committee.

The top five vote-getters, who are now the RTR’s executive committee are: Henry County Commission Chairman B.J. Mathis, Douglas County Commission Chairman Tom Wortham, Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd, Norcross Mayor Bucky Johnson and Kennesaw Mayor Mark Mathews.

Since the meeting, Atlanta Mayor Reed has been quoted in Atlanta media outlets as being critical of the executive committee’s lack of representation from Fulton County, to the point of saying he may not be able to promote or even support the referendum’s passage. Ironically, Fulton County has the largest number of votes on the full roundtable: 3 due to Reed’s presence, while all other counties have just 2 votes each.