With more state money for road work expected, Liberty County Commissioners reminded an area lawmaker that the county has been promised a Hinesville bypass.
The hint came Tuesday when Sen. Ben Watson, R-Savannah, visited the Liberty Board of Commissioners. The General Assembly convenes Monday in Atlanta. Watson talked about some of the aspects of House Bill 170, the Transportation Funding Act, which passed last year. He also listened to commissioners’ concerns.
“The major legislation that we have coming up is basically feeding off the legislation that we had last year with House Bill 170... That was probably the biggest piece of legislature for our state legislature over the past 15-20 years,” Watson said. “Funding for transportation (had) reduced. The major reason is because of gasoline consumption. Gasoline consumption has leveled for the past few years, so we’re not consuming more gasoline. Something that had not been affected at all is construction inflation. Something like $1 million paved a two lane highway for 16 miles 20 years ago and now it paves about one mile. So there were major issues with inflation, major issues with efficiency and gasoline consumption.”
HB 170 changed the state tax on gasoline from sales to all excise tax, 26 cents per gallon of gas and 29 cents for diesel, which is estimated to raise over $900 million for construction projects.
“The excise tax relating to gasoline did not change at that time. An excise tax can only be used for transportation — that 7 ½ cents — but Georgia has 4 cents sales tax that could be used for other things. And like government officials do at times, in 2008-2009, $200 million of that 4 cents was taken out and used in the general budget and was not put back,” Watson said.
He said the legislators corrected that by converting the Georgia sales tax into an excise tax, which can only be used for transportation and construction related to interstate expansion.
The bill also eliminated a $5,000 tax credit for electric cars. Watson said that electric cars were not paying anything toward roads and bridges, but were using the roads. A surcharge has been added to electric cars and also large trucks because of the adverse effects on roads.
“This is something that will help us in the future when it comes to infrastructure in the state of Georgia,” Watson said. “The feds did their part this year. They funded transportation and given us something, the state of Georgia and us locally, can use over the next five years.”
Liberty County Board of Commissioners Chairman Donald Lovette told Watson that there are road projects in Liberty that need funding. He mentioned the plans for a bypass that will allow trucks to go around Hinesville.
“We keep hearing how much more traffic is coming from the ports. There’s 1,000 (trucks) a day coming in now. We need it to go around Hinesville and not through because of safety problems.”
Watson said he was sensitive to the issue of public safety in light of an accident that killed five Georgia Southern nursing students in a seven-vehicle crash on Interstate 16. Watson serves as a member on the Public Safety committee, as vice chairman of the Economic Development and Tourism committee, Ethic committee and Health and Human Services Committee.
Commissioner Marion Stevens told Watson that a request for funding on a road safety project was sent to the Georgia Department of Transportation. The request is to realign the intersection of Oglethorpe Highway and Bill Carter Road.
Commissioner Connie Thrift asked if the state is doing anything specific about mental health. She and Lovette agreed that although Fort Stewart provides mental health services for service members, there are civilians in the area who need help.
Watson said over the past five years, the state has gotten federal money to cope with decentralized mental health facilities in the state. This led to the creation of regional crisis stabilization units. He said Gov. Nathan Deal has requested to get out from under federal review in that area, but the senator said he does not know the specifics of the governor’s plan.
Jimmy McDonald, the county’s new government relations consultant, arranged for Watson to meet the commissioners. McDonald said that he wants to bring in other government representatives before the commissioners in order to build relationships and share information.
Watson said, “I’m happy to be here and want to keep and open dialogue.”
Watson previously served as state representative of the islands district of Savannah for four years and has been a Senator for a year. He represents District 1 which covers Bryan County, portions of Chatham and Liberty counties, all of Liberty except Gum Branch. Watson is also a practicing physician with South Coast Medical Group in Savannah.
In other business, the rest of the agenda was short.
The commissioners approved applying for a Community Development Block Grant on behalf of the Coastal Georgia Area Community Action Authority, for funds to build a new facility for the Liberty Head Start program in Riceboro. County Administrator Joey Brown said the authority will also contribute funds toward the project. The facility would be built and owned by the county, and the authority will pay all expenses related to the building.
“The property used to be owned by the Board of Education and the private property owner has a need to use the property and they’re trying to find a suitable site (for Head Start). The city of Riceboro is helping to pursue a site.” Brown said.
Lovette talked about how the students and teachers need a better facility and hoped that the funds would be granted.
Commissioners also bought a front-load truck for the Solid Waste department, to replace an old truck, for $242,985 from Bunch Trucking in Garden City. Brown said the purchase was an anticipated capital item and was already included in the county’s budget.