By Augusta Chronicle Editorial Staff

When area voters head to the polls March 24, they will be asked whether to continue a 1-cent transportation special purpose local option sales tax (TSPLOST) to help fund a long list of important road projects.

To prepare for a more successful and prosperous future, you should emphatically vote “yes.”

Otherwise?

Actor Jimmy Stewart’s character in the film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” cringed when he saw how his community would have suffered if he had never been born. It was a nightmare.

Now imagine how this community would have suffered if voters in a 13-county region hadn’t approved the first TSPLOST in 2012. That miscalculation would have helped shape a whole different nightmare.

The Augusta area is growing. Columbia County in particular is exploding. Imagine our area with more residents and workers and commuters without improved roads to accommodate them all.

More to the point, imagine what would have happened if the Army announced the arrival of its gigantic cyber presence at Fort Gordon – and our local governments didn’t have the funding for transportation infrastructure to better handle thousands of unexpected new residents and workers and commuters.

Where would we be?

Stuck in traffic. And everyone in our area would be paying the price for being poorly prepared for progress.

Instead, thankfully, residents throughout the Central Savannah River Area voted eight years ago for the first TSPLOST to fund more than $841 million in transportation projects specifically for our region, selected prudently by our area’s leaders.

This wasn’t tax money that got thrown into state coffers to disappear down some rabbit hole. This was money that stayed under our control, in our neighborhoods – and because it did stay, you can see the gratifying results as you drive across the Augusta area.

Thanks to that first TSPLOST, you can conveniently drive along River Watch Parkway from downtown to Washington Road in Evans. Area officials had been waiting since 1993 for funding to extend and widen that road into Columbia County. Without the TSPLOST, we would still be waiting.

Thanks to the TSPLOST, a vastly improved Windsor Spring Road, to accommodate anticipated traffic increases, conveniently takes motorists to new residential and commercial developments in south Augusta. Thanks to the TSPLOST, driving through Grovetown on crowded Robinson Avenue is steadily triggering fewer migraines.

A badly-needed new Broad Street bridge now spans Hawk’s Gully. Busy Highway 56 is a much-improved commuter corridor. Augusta has a new, high-tech Transportation Management Center that not only smooths traffic flow but can quickly coordinate help manage emergencies.

That’s only a small handful of successes. So far, 50 of the 84 local transportation projects under the first TSPLOST have been completed. The others are either under construction on the drawing boards – and all assuredly paid for.

Further transportation needs, big and small, are proposed under TSPLOST II. “Every county is going to be a little bit different in terms of what their strategies are,” said Sue Parr, president and CEO of the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Most of Columbia County’s 65 identified projects for TSPLOST II involve resurfacing miles of roads. The county’s steady growth means its major corridors need improving. But the penny tax also will help pay a combined $87 million to finally widen two of the county’s most nerve-wracking roads to navigate at rush hours – Hardy-McManus and Hereford Farm.

Most of Richmond County’s 33 proposed projects go beyond just resurfacing. To name just a couple: Lane improvements on Doug Barnard Parkway, past Augusta Regional Airport and near major industry, will render the road much safer, especially in early-morning hours. Widening and improvements on Skinner Mill Road have been sought for years. Since younger citizens are driving less these days, the county is seeking to further develop public transit and to make the 13th Street Bridge friendlier for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The region’s other 11 counties have proposed 47 more transportation projects that would elevate their communities. If you visit the website yesforthefuture.com, you can read about every single project slated for every single county.

Possibly the biggest penny-tax impact around Augusta would be seen downtown. Broad Street would become more pedestrian-friendly and more easily accommodating event space, for such popular gatherings as Arts in the Heart.

Other pedestrian improvements would finally connect the Augusta Canal headgates all the way to the Fifth Street Bridge, which TSPLOST II funds would help transform into a popular visitor destination with plenty of seating, play features for children and points of interest for adults.

TSPLOST II is expected to generate $786 million to fund 13 counties’ transportation projects from 2023 to 2032. With the Georgia Department of Transportation providing additional project-specific funding, total transportation funding is expected to exceed $1 billion.

That’s a lot of pennies.

The TSPLOST is merely a penny sales tax, which as taxes go is the least intrusive. Not only is the burden light, but the burden is also made lighter because it will be shouldered by everyone who conducts business in our area. Don’t forget that Augusta attracts an estimated 1.8 million tourists each year.

Advocates of TSPLOST II are encountering less skepticism from residents now than in 2012. Unlike in 2012, people can actually see the tax’s positive results. Tammy Shepherd, president and CEO of the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, explained it by echoing the penny tax’s selling points from eight years ago.

“It’s our money. It’s our roads. It’s our decision. It’s our investment,” she said. “We know what we’re buying, and it really resonates with the residents in our community. They just don’t feel like it’s our money just going to Atlanta and we don’t know what we’re getting. There are definitely some controls put in there.”

Augusta’s regional transportation district was one of only three regions in Georgia that voted for the TSPLOST in 2012. Elsewhere, for one area-specific reason or another, voters considered a TSPLOST a poor fit.

“For our region, it works,” Parr said. “When you consider the commuting patterns, the regional.needs – Augusta and Columbia being the more urban counties that a lot of these rural counties are depending on for their purchases. Take what we get from a visitor-spending point fo view and see how that consumption tax helps deal with the roads. It’s just a win-win.”

Transportation infrastructure also is crucial to economic development. Businesses and companies are attracted by areas where they can most easily move their products and their people. Maintaining good roads is simply good business.

And since TSPLOST II is an investment in transportation and the people who use it, it’s not one of those taxes that fattens an already-bloated bureaucracy. It’s a wise investment in our area’s future – and no one knows quite what the future holds.

“We don’t know what the next cyber announcement is going to be,” Parr said.

So we can either wait until those life-changing events occur, then scramble nervously for a solution; or we can expect the best, and prepare for it.

Early voting has begun. So from now through March 24, you can help shape our area’s success by rightly voting “yes” to extend the 1-cent transportation special purpose local option sales tax.