Mostly foes at sales tax debate

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The fighting words came out during a debate Thursday, as a vote neared on a controversial transportation sales tax measure.

During the Georgia Tea Party event on the subject in Lawrenceville, panelists called the state transportation agency "inept" and the proposal advocates "used car salesmen."

Three of the four panelists talked to a mostly anti-tax crowd about flaws they find with the Transportation Investment Act, on ballots Tuesday, including loss of local control and issues with list of regional projects.

Michael Sullivan, the lone panelist supporting the regional proposal expected to bring $8 billion to metro Atlanta road and transit projects, who himself faced name-calling, said the list was not perfect, But working to tackle congestion issues would make the area more competitive in luring business, he said.

"It seems to me we want to have it both ways," Sullivan said of arguments that voters should defeat the measure in hopes that the Legislature and state transportation leaders would resolve all of the issues. "That's putting a lot of faith in something ... we don't have a lot of faith in now."

Debbie Dooley, a Dacula woman who founded the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots, said her group favored an approach that allowed counties to decide who to band together with to tackle transportation instead of the imposed system that groups Gwinnett into the Atlanta region.

She compared the proposal to President Obama's stimulus plan and tax increase, an unsavory charge among the group of conservatives.

"We can't afford to do this," she said, adding that the tea party planned to file a lawsuit if the item passes anywhere in Georgia.

Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said her displeasure with the proposal came last year when the toll lanes were activated along Interstate 85. She said her inquiries into the issue, which actually increased congestion, caused her to realize the problem with the bureaucracy.

And, as far as the project list is concerned, she added that a proposal to convert Gravel Springs Road to an interchange angered her Buford constituents.

While debates in the Legislature lingered for years before the current Transportation Investment Act was adopted, Unterman said leaders would be anxious to take on the issue again in January if voters say no to the proposal.

"That's the risk," she said of politics intervening in the Legislature, "but I still say that risk is better than dumping billions of dollars into a system that is not working."