Summit speakers stress importance of transportation funding

The city and the region around it are already reaping benefits from the TSPLOST passed in 2012, city leaders were told Wednesday at a transportation summit held in Columbus.

The summit, arranged by local Department of Transportation board member Sam Wellborn, brought together dozens of local leaders from the public and private sector, along with DOT leadership, transportation planners and consultants at the City Services Center.

Several speakers said the regions that passed the sales tax will be years ahead of those that didn’t when the projects laid out for each have been completed.

City Planning Director Rick Jones listed the eight local projects that will be funded by the tax, and reminded the audience that in addition to the approximately $260 million that will build them, the city is collecting millions in discretionary funds from the tax to do other transportation projects.

“The great thing about TSPLOST projects is that when we go out to talk to citizens to get their input, we don’t have to tell them that we’re talking about doing this in 10 or 20 years, or when we can find the money,” Jones said. “We’re now saying to them, ‘We have the money. We’re going to do the project, now how do you want to see it done?’”

Wellborn said the city is collecting about $200,000 a month, or about $2.4 million a year, in the discretionary funds Jones mentioned, calling it “manna from heaven.”

“It’s money that we would not have had TSPLOST not passed,” Wellborn said. “Basically, all of our basic transportation needs are going to be taken care of through either the regular program or the TSPLOST. I just feel sorry for those counties that didn’t pass it.”

Even with the transportation advances the three regions will enjoy because of their passing the TSPLOST, the state as a whole is and will continue to be in dire need of money to maintain its huge transportation infrastructure, Wellborn and others said repeatedly.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre addressed the group from his perspective as a member of the joint Critical Transportation Infrastructure Funding committee and the House Appropriations Committee.

“Transportation has to be elevated to a top priority,” Smyre said. “Transportation won’t guarantee you economic development, but I guarantee you, without transportation funding you won’t have economic development.”

Smyre said that requires an investment of tax dollars, which isn’t the easiest thing to accomplish in the current economic and political climate.

“We have to find a way to fund our infrastructure, not just our roads, but our total infrastructure,” Smyre said. “Economic development, having a better quality of life, I think all are linked to our tax system and the way we fund transportation.”