As Georgians head to the poles, one decision they will have to make is whether or not to support TSPLOST. Don Grantham, a board member for the Georgia Department of Transportation, joined Brad Means to explain what the tax is, how it is spent, and how it improves our communities.
Brad Means: Don Grantham, thank you for taking time to be with me today.
Don Grantham: Thank you Brad. And I look forward to it. This is a very important topic and I think one that you and I have spoken about on numerous occasions.
Brad Means: It’s true and so I wanna just explain what the TSPLOST is to the viewers and then get you to help me out with it. It’s The Transportation Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax. It’s one penny added to your sales tax when you buy stuff. And we’re looking to in this upcoming election extended for another two years. Don, is it fair to say that this tax makes our roads nicer and builds us new ones?
Don Grantham: Yes, very much so, Brad. And this is a 10 year program, which we’re into the first phase of the first sales tax that we passed back in 2012. And with that, we have accomplished a lot of projects throughout the CSRA region. But my main interest certainly is within the Richmond County and Columbia County. The roads here that we have completed and done are so important that it has enabled I think our community, our state, our governor and everyone else to attract businesses and particularly the Cyber Movement that has come to Augusta. I shutter to think where we would be had we not had this sales tax.
Brad Means: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about some of the roads that stand out to you and that some of the viewers will recognize in just a moment. But first let’s talk about the business side of it. You know, we see this tax generating hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, and that money goes to the projects for sure. But once you have those projects completed and those better roads in place, tell us about how that helps bring businesses here. Do they care about what our roads look and feel like?
Don Grantham: Yeah, Brad I feel like they do. And I’ve traveled throughout not only the State of Georgia, but throughout the Southeast this country as well as others. And our roads are recognized as one of the best in the United States, within our region and within our state. In addition to that, we have so many good contractors in the area that we’re provided with what is recognized as the best roads and best transportation infrastructure in the U.S.
Brad Means: When you’re looking at the projects that the sales tax money is going to pay for, are these projects largely predetermined, or if we vote in favor of this pass and it’s in favor of this tax and it passes could the public have any say, so in projects that they wanna see get done or has that ship sailed?
Don Grantham: Well, no, that is not sailed in. That’s an interesting question because within the monies that are collected, we have what is called a discretionary fund. And the discretionary fund, is 25% of the total collected monies or within the tax period of time. And that money is distributed to the various counties and areas that has passed their tax. With that being said, it gives them an opportunity to not only use those funds for matching dollars, but for dollars that they can improve sidewalks as long as the money is used for an infrastructure purpose.
Brad Means: All right, so let’s take a look at some of the projects that the first round or the current round of the TSPLOST is paid for in our area. What are some parts around town, some places around town that viewers would be familiar with that you’ve seen improvements?
Don Grantham: Well, I think some of the most important areas that I’ve seen Brad is the areas that we had 31 projects… 33 projects in and those have all been completed to the tune of about $75 million. And in that area, we have seen Berkman Road be improved and finished up to the port where it is right now at Rae’s Creek. We have seen extended into the Columbia County area. We have seen many numerous projects are done. We have seen Highway 78 leading out to the new CyberGate 6 at Fort Gordon which I think is vitally important to what we have accomplished throughout this region.
Brad Means: Yeah, you mentioned it earlier. Cyber is really taking over this area, and I would imagine that those folks when they come down here would like for their commute to be a smooth one.
Don Grantham: Yeah, definitely. I think that gives us the opportunity to say, not only do we look out for the people that are coming into this region, but we look out for their transportation means and to get them better coverage as far as road conditions are concerned.
Brad Means: Can you look into your crystal ball, maybe it’s too early. And take a look at some of the projects that might be coming down the road, not only under the current phase of TSPLOST but if this new one is approved?
Don Grantham: Yes, we do Brad. I think that’s a very good question. And one that’s important. What we’re looking at right now is some of the major roads would be Willis Foreman Road, Tobacco Road, Road, Milledgeville Road, Road, and the 13th Street Bridge. The 13th Street Bridge is going to be extremely important because it will become an iconic situation that leads not only from Augusta, Georgia into North Augusta, South Carolina, but will give an attraction that we do not have along our river way and waterways.
Brad Means: You know, when I hear you mention those projects, both the existing ones and the future ones, it sounds like you’re hitting all parts of town. Is that intentional? Do you all wanna make sure that all parts of Augusta see these improvements?
Don Grantham: Yes, we do. And that’s something that we have relied upon that everyone gets treated fairly and the commissioners, as well as transportation people along with myself and some of the state representatives have gone and presented these projects as to what has been listed now by our engineering departments of these various areas. And what they do is now they will select those projects. Those projects will be approved in an overall general meeting. And then, once the tax is collected those projects must be worked on. They must be completed within the time of the tax collection.
Brad Means: You know, I misspoke over you, I said projects around Augusta it’s really projects around a 13-county area that you serve. Don, when you’re at those board meetings with other DOT board members, do you feel like they listen to your voice and these voice of this 13-County area? Or is it difficult sometimes to say, “Look, you’ve got to direct some of this money “and some of these projects to my part “of the Peach State.” I know so many times when we see Atlanta in the spotlight so many times.
Don Grantham: Well, and that too is a good question. What’s the Transportation Investment Act was passed in 2010 to be voted on in 2012, the legislature indicated that those regions would maintain their own dollars and that they would be using those dollars with no separations to any other areas and or to any government entities other than through the people who voted for it and to the areas that they represent.
Brad Means: How long does it take from the time you want to put a road somewhere or from the time you want to make an existing road better until the project is totally finished?
Don Grantham: That varies certainly on the distance. Right now, the average cost of a mile, both waves on a highway is precautionary accessible million dollars. And so, we’re looking at anywhere from 10 to 12 month period of time to a two and a half year period of time. And that certainly depends on the size and the scope of that project because you have to do so many things. You’re working with the utility companies. All of them being included, has to either be moved or regulated or needs to be relocated in a way that is not interfering with the construction once that starts.
Brad Means: How much attention are y’all paying these days to places for bicyclists and pedestrians when you put in new roads or when you fix current roads.
Don Grantham: Another good question, We’re being requested by numerous areas to put in the bicycle pathways as well as walkways. And I think once you see 13th Street and the concept that will be had now there’ll be a bicycle trail, and there will be a walk path across that bridge that will lead into the North Augusta and to the Baseball Stadium area as well as up and down River Watch. And not only River Watch, but River Walk and all of that will be tied in very nicely, but bicycling has come… Has become a most important feature of our area. And a lot of people are utilizing the bicycles andn the bicycle trails that have been provided.
Brad Means: Why is traffic still so bad in Columbia County? Is that a DOT thing or is that a Columbia County thing?
Don Grantham: Well, I’m not gonna blame it on either one Brad. I’m trying to put it in a posture to where, I think they were a little late in getting started out there with a lot of projects. And Columbia County, all of a sudden exploded into a business and bedroom community. With that being said, we just needed to catch up and do the type of work that needed to be done from a state DOT standpoint and the local community standpoint.
Brad Means: You know, we’re trying to come out of this pandemic right now, Don. And times are tight. Is it tough to sell a tax to voters? I know it’s just a penny sales tax for all these projects you’ve been talking about. Is it a tough sell sometimes when people are trying to hold onto their money?
Don Grantham: Well, to some degree it will be. But I think if you look back over your shoulder and see what’s been accomplished and how that money has been spent and it’s been directed into the needs and the uses of what the people have chosen then it’s not that difficult. And also to realize that 25% of those dollars are coming back to the local communities or for discretionary use or sidewalks, bicycle trails, beautification, things that would be involved with the infrastructure. So to me, I think we have become the star of the State of Georgia. There are many other regions that are willing and wanting to pass this tax now, and they’re putting it on their voting applications right now.
Brad Means: You know, Don, I know South Carolina is not your area, but I have noticed as I’m sure any motorist has noticed that when you leave Georgia and drive into South Carolina on Interstate 20, the roads change for the worst, the road that stretch 20, going into the Palmetto State is not as good as the part in Richmond County and headed throughout the state of Georgia, is that because they don’t have a TSPLOST or not as much attention is paid to roads there?
Don Grantham: Well, that’s one of the reasons. And they’ve not given the attention that has been needed to their road repairs. Another is here a state fuel tax. Here about eight to 10 years ago, Georgia raised its fuel tax. And that’s where we get a lot of our state money that goes into our roads and our maintenance programs and everything else. So, South Carolina is finally catching on and they’re going to make a pretty good change here within the next five years, I believe. Glad you mentioned that ’cause there are 20 bridges going to be one of the most important projects that we’re going to have here coming it’s already started. The inconvenience has gonna be somewhat annoying. But I hope that the people will understand that it’s a much needed project and it’s an $82 million project that will be going into South Carolina, which they’re paying their portion of it as well as it will go and extend to the first exit in South Carolina.
Brad Means: Don, I wanna make sure I’m correct. Before we say goodbye to each other. They’ve moved this around so many times, June 9th is when we cast these battles, right? June 9th?
Don Grantham: Yes, that is the voting date. And certainly absentee ballots have been mailed out. I’m proud to say that I’ve sent mine back in and I voted an absolute yes for this particular program and for the TL program. And I hope that everyone else will, and I hope you’ll keep pushing the button to keep the reminder in front of everyone. If you can’t get to the polls and stay distance then I hope that you’ll send your absentee ballot in and please vote in favor of this project because it is important not only to the present day people that are traveling, but for the future children and the people of this state.
Brad Means: Don Grantham, Georgia’s Department of Transportation board member and longtime community leader in Augusta. Thanks for explaining the TSPLOST to us. And thanks for all you do for these parts. We appreciate it.
Don Grantham: Thank you, Brad.