While the Glynn County Commission is likely to continue discussion of a new toll of F.J. Torras Causeway, the subject doesn’t enjoy much support among commissioners.
Commissioner Allen Booker first brought the idea forward for open discussion at a work session in March 2018.
“After the meeting with the state and GDOT (Georgia Department of Transportation), it appears that’s something that folks might believe is a decent idea, so I thought we should at least start talking about it,” Booker said just prior to the meeting in March.
As of this week, he continues to support a new toll on the causeway.
“I’m in support of it,” Booker said Tuesday. “I also support that the locals don’t pay, if possible.”
The list of repairs and maintenance needed on the county’s roads, bridges, sidewalks and drainage systems continue to grow, Booker said, also taking into account the declining state of the public water and sewer systems.
“We need funding for infrastructure. A lot of people visit here and this is a good way to get it,” Booker said. “... I don’t see another alternative that wouldn’t hurt the local residents more.”
Rather than looking at it as a burden on local residents, Booker said he’d like to put the entire burden of the toll on visitors and tourists. He doesn’t expect it would impact tourism much, he said, pointing to tourist communities locally and in other states that have successfully implemented tolls on their roads.
“I don’t think it would hurt tourism. It hasn’t hurt the other areas that use it, like Jekyll Island. And they have a (six) dollar (daily pass) toll,” Booker said.
In an interview last week, Commissioner Peter Murphy voiced his support for the measure.
“This isn’t an effort to punish anybody or keep anyone from coming over, it’s to raise revenue. We have so many unmet needs with our infrastructure,” Murphy said on Jan. 18. “Roads, sidewalks, bike paths ... I am at a loss to think of another consistent and reliable revenue stream to take care of the infrastructure needs in the county.”
State DOT and Tollway Authority officials told him directly that, if the county paid to install its own equipment, it could collect the toll and keep the proceeds, he said in the interview and at previous meetings.
That revenue could go toward any number of local projects aside from those relating to infrastructure repair and maintenance.
But that’s where most of the support on the county commission ends.
Commissioner Bill Brunson is “trying to keep an open mind,” but has many questions he says remain unanswered.
“I’m not against a study to find out the feasibility (of a new toll), but before we spend a dime we need to know that we aren’t going to have to spend all the revenue on the causeway doing what the DOT is doing now,” Brunson said. “I think we need further information to move forward, and right now I don’t think we’ve got the fundamental questions answered.”
Local perception and memories of the campaign to get rid of GDOT’s tollbooth — which led the GDOT to remove the booth in 2003 — hang over any discussion of a new toll, said commission Chairman Mike Browning.
“I am against the toll. Locally, we fought very hard to get that toll off the road many years ago,” Browning said. “The state told us that toll was to pay for the causeway, and I think the citizens knew that. But they kept collecting money, and we knew it wasn’t going to that causeway, so there was a push to get that toll off. I am among many in Glynn County, we would prefer not to see another toll.”
He reiterated the skepticism he expressed at the county commission’s work session earlier this month, saying he doubts the GDOT will allow Glynn County to keep the toll money for local purposes.
“From those who want the toll, I have heard people say they want to use the money for infrastructure in the county, and I’m not sure the state will allow that,” Browning said. “... I guess there’s the possibility the state would come back and say you can put up a toll and use the money on infrastructure locally, but there’s a lot of doubt in my mind. It would open up a can of worms for the state.”
Like other commissioners, he said the toll amounts to another tax of which local residents will bear the brunt.
“I can’t understand why we want to tax ourselves locally to do what the state’s doing anyway,” Browning said.
Nothing short of widespread public support would change his opinion, he added.
“If they (residents) are behind it enough to do a study, then I can see where doing a study may give the community a little bit more information,” Browning said. “It’s still a matter of whether the community wants to pay a toll. We had town halls for paying for parking to pay for paving on St. Simons, and we found out they didn’t want that.”
Referencing his statements when the possibility of a new toll came up during the 2018 county commission elections, freshman Commissioner David O’Quinn said his opinion hasn’t changed.
“Last year during the campaign and the primary, this subject came up. Then I said I wasn’t in favor of a toll for a toll’s sake, just for infrastructure and not specifically targeted, and I stand by that statement,” O’Quinn said.
Fellow freshman Commissioner Wayne Neal also ruled out a new toll as the answer to infrastructure needs.
“I’m basically against any kind of toll on the causeway,” Neal said. “I am suspicious of the politics behind it. There was politics behind getting it removed, too. There’s a lot more information that would have to come out about the positive aspects of it. I don’t see any positive aspects.”
He, like Browning, compared a toll to a tax. Before putting any additional burden on citizens, Neal said the commission should look at where it can cut costs elsewhere.
“First of all, budget management. I’m not accusing anyone in any department of mismanagement, but that’s the place to start,” Neal said. “... For me, I’m new on the commission, I’ve got to look and learn and explore if there’s any possibilities before implementing any kind of tax increase.”
While he agreed with Murphy’s and Booker’s concerns about infrastructure maintenance, Commissioner Bob Coleman said the commission should look for other means of paying for it.
“I just think there’s another way to approach this. I can understand (Murphy’s) concerns about the infrastructure — I don’t argue that point whatsoever — it’s something we’ve got to find a means to support, but I don’t think a toll on the causeway is the answer,” Coleman said. “It’s just not right to try to grab money any way you can get it, especially with the history of the toll on that causeway.”
Rather than a toll, Coleman said he’d prefer to enact something that is evenly distributed across county residents and visitors.
“St. Simons Island is a part of Glynn County, just like District 1, or District 5 or the rest of the county. The picture here is something that’s going to have to be evenly distributed among the taxpayers,” Coleman said. “... If it’s going to be a revenue-creating project, it’s something that should be fairly distributed among everybody.”
Something like the special-purpose, local-option sales tax, he said.
“I would lean heavily on SPLOST. That includes everyone on a fair basis to me. If you buy something, you drop in a penny to the cause. It doesn’t matter what you buy, everyone is participating equally,” Coleman said. “Number one, it’s the fairest way. Number two, it’s the quickest way to create revenue without a big investment. They’re talking about putting $5 million out there to run this toll, and handing it over to a subcontractor to handle charging it.”
Even accounting for the passage of SPLOST 2016, Murphy has previously stated that the county still has infrastructure needs that have, so far, gone unmet.
Despite that, most other commissioners support using SPLOST over a toll.
“SPLOST has been our source. That’s certainly not a given. It obviously has to be voted on for a period of time and then it stops,” Brunson said. “It’s a critical source of revenue for infrastructure because you can’t raise property taxes enough to deal with the overall cost of infrastructure. A great deal of it is paid by people who use our infrastructure, tourists.”
O’Quinn said he believed SPLOST is naturally more transparent than a toll would be, and therefore a better deal for the public.
“The voters get the opportunity to see what the money’s going to, we have an oversight committee to look over the process,” O’Quinn said.
If the need for more spending on infrastructure becomes too great for SPLOST, Neal suggested asking the voters to approve a transportation SPLOST or TSPLOST.
A TSPLOST is another one percent sales tax imposed on top of a normal SPLOST, the proceeds from which must go towards transportation projects exclusively. Like the SPLOST, the county must present a list of projects to the voters for approval. The tax can only run for a maximum of five years before voters must approve it again, as with a standard SPLOST.
While they’re having the discussion, O’Quinn said he hopes to segue the conversation into one about the future of the causeway more broadly.
“I think there’s a separate discussion that needs to come out of this, which is that we need to work with the Georgia Department of Transportation on planned expansion of the causeway,” O’Quinn said. “In 15 or 20 years, that causeway isn’t going to be big enough for the traffic that’s coming to it, and I want to be sure we’re having those discussions now. It’s the only road on or off the island.”
He added that he believes Murphy’s head is in the right place, but that a toll isn’t the silver bullet for the county’s infrastructure issues.
“I appreciate Dr. Murphy’s willingness to look for solutions to the infrastructure problems that we face, and I believe he is doing it from noble intentions,” O’Quinn said. “But I do not agree that this is the solution to the problem we face.”