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New road tax called essential
Former state lawmaker Jerry Keen, right, talks with Hinesville City Manager Billy Edwards and Liberty County Development Authority Chairman Allen Brown. - photo by Randy C.Murray

A proposed sales tax for transportation is necessary if the state’s highway system is to be improved, former state Rep. and House Majority Leader Jerry Keen told members of the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce at an Eggs & Issues Breakfast on Tuesday in the Liberty County School System’s bus maintenance building.

Keen, a lifelong Georgian who lived on St. Simons Island when he was a lawmaker, left the legislature in 2010 after serving 10 years. He told chamber members the Transportation Investment Act was among the hardest legislation he worked on. It calls for a 1 percent sales tax that would fund transportation projects. And it goes before voters in July.

“We had to do something,” he said. “Revenue for funding transportation projects is shrinking. Federal funds for transportation were $380 million less this year. Our 7.5 percent gas tax is not generating the money it used to because cars are getting better mileage. People are starting to car pool and higher gas prices are keeping folks off the roads.”

Keen referenced a traffic accident in Midway that backed up traffic Tuesday morning, saying such traffic delays are an everyday occurrence in metro Atlanta where he now lives. He said there are more than 9,000 bridges across the state, noting that highway maintenance funds could be spent entirely on  maintaining bridges.

“Think about the major transportation projects in this area in recent years,” he said, mentioning the widening of I-95 and Highway 196. “There is no money to fund those kinds of projects anymore.”

When Keen asked for questions, state Rep. Al Williams, D-Midway, asked if he was aware of efforts by a conservative group to distort information about TIA.

“I’ve heard the arguments by the naysayers,” Keen said. “They’ve said the 1 cent regional sales tax for the Transportation Investment Act will end up in the hands of (Department of Transportation), but that’s not true. The DOT has nothing to do with this, except that they will be allowed to bid on transportation projects just like private companies. I’ve also heard the charges that all the money raised from this sales tax is heading up to Atlanta, and I’ve heard folks in Atlanta saying it’s all going to rural areas. I’m even being called a liberal and, folks, it was hard to get to the right of me on fiscal issues.”

Several people chuckled. Then Williams said some people were accusing him of being conservative for supporting the TIA. That filled the room with laughter.

“This is neither a conservative issue nor a liberal issue,” Keen added. “It’s not an urban issue or a rural issue. It’s an economic development project …”

The local chamber is working toward passage of the tax. No objections to it were aired at the breakfast.

Keen said the act divides the state into regions. Money raised by the tax will be used for  projects from a list developed by officials within the region, he added.

“The implications of this July 31 vote are big and long-lasting,” said Keen. “I’m counting on the coast to lead the way.”

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