It was called the Georgia 400 Summit, but Thursday’s luncheon delved into much more than just the bustling corridor.
The event — organized by the Cumming-Forsyth, Dawson and Dahlonega-Lumpkin County chambers of commerce — also covered the Interstate 85 toll lanes and the proposed regional Transportation Special Local Option Sales Tax, or T-SPLOST.
Attendees, who came from all three counties, listened to a panel that featured Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Keith Golden, Georgia Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner Todd Long and State Road and Tollway Authority Executive Director Gena Evans.
Cory Lee, a Forsyth chamber member, said he attended the session at the Lanier Technical College Forsyth Conference Center because as a business owner he has an “interest in improving Ga. 400.”
“Education is key, especially in today’s political climate,” he said. “… And the T-SPLOST, I’m very interested in that. It’s going to drive economic development for Atlanta and keep us in line with the Charlottes of the world and other growing, emerging cities.
“We’ve got to do something to make sure that we’re getting our market share of business and this is a great tool in my mind.”
The T-SPLOST, a regional 1-cent sales tax that would fund a pre-approved list of projects, is on the July 31 primary ballot.
Several areas of the state are proposing the tax, including the Georgia Mountains Region, which includes Forsyth, Dawson, Lumpkin and Hall, among other northeastern counties.
Also considering the tax is the Atlanta Regional Commission, which includes Fulton County and many metro area communities.
In the Mountains Region, the tax is expected to yield up to $1.26 billion over a 10-year period, with about 25 percent of that money going toward local projects.
The majority of it, however, would fund regionally beneficial projects chosen by a roundtable.
The widening of Ga. 400 from McFarland Road to Hwy. 20 is among the list’s highest priorities, said Long, with the DOT.
He also noted the sales tax isn’t the only option.
“The Plan B exists, it’s just not very attractive,” he said. “The Plan B is the current course we’re on today.”
Long spent most of his presentation explaining the proposed sales tax and how the department currently funds projects through federal and state gas taxes, a revenue stream that’s shrinking as less fuel is purchased.
Georgia, he said, is among the nation’s lowest in per-capita transportation spending.
While Long, and the other panelists could not formally support the transportation sales tax, he did note it was an option to fund much needed projects.
“We simply do not have the revenue stream to meet the needs we have out in the future,” he said.
Evans talked about the hot lanes on I-85, which she said are growing in use and “going better than we thought it would go.”
She also talked about the Ga. 400 Express Lanes study, which has been the subject of three public hearings. The study includes several possibilities for the corridor.
“Of those six options, not a single option includes converting a general purpose lane to a toll lane, so everybody can sleep at night,” she said.
“Show up for the public hearings. We are very interested in the input of the communities about where we should be heading on Ga. 400 and the way to have your voice heard … is to show up and tell us.”
The event was presented by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Linda Cole, hospital spokeswoman told the crowd of about 100 that navigating Ga. 400 had become a problem for parents attempting to reach Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“It’s fairly common for parents to arrange their children’s appointments around the traffic pattern on Ga. 400,” Cole said. “In an emergency situation, every second is critical.”
Deb Bailey, spokeswoman for Northeast Georgia Health System in Gainesville, said officials there “often hear the same thing you heard Children’s say.”
“We have a lot of difficulty getting patients to our hospital, particularly in an emergency situation and that was our interest here today,” she said.
Ga. 400, dubbed Hospitality Highway, is also important for attracting tourists and businesses to the area. That’s what brought Dennis Hoover to Thursday’s summit.
Hoover, who owns Mountain Laurel Creek Inn & Spa in Dahlonega, wanted to “get the facts.”
“Is it worth coming up Ga. 400 to have the overnight getaway if the traffic is so bad?” he asked. “I can see the need for passing the tax because I definitely see it as a benefit for everybody.”