ST. SIMON’S ISLAND — There is no question that Bryan County is growing, but there are plenty of questions about how to deal with that growth.
County commissioners held a retreat Thursday and Friday on St. Simon’s Island to discuss long-range planning and infrastructure needs over the next several decades. The Bryan County News attended Thursday afternoon’s session.
“People ask us what we’re doing to get ready, and the answer is we’ve been doing things to prepare,” County Administrator Ben Taylor said. “But we also have to set realistic expectations.”
Taylor said that as the county grows, so does the tax digest. General fund revenues have increased by nearly $3 million in the last four years, and reserves have increased $2 million.
“That means more money to invest to deliver services,” Taylor noted.
The county has also started long-range planning for capital improvements, as well as road maintenance and equipment replacement.
“We’ve been looking at our current capabilities and comparing that to where we need to be in the future,” Taylor said. “We’ve been ramping up for growth.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Bryan County was the 27th fastest growing county in the nation from 2010 to 2015. The population here in 1980 was 7,000. It is now at about 40,000 and expected to reach 60,000 by 2030.
“That kind of growth in Georgia is a very uncommon circumstance outside of metro Atlanta,” Taylor said.
And with that growth comes the main issue on everyone’s minds — traffic.
“Without proper transportation infrastructure, people start hollering,” said Gordon Maner, a consultant from the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government who facilitated the retreat. “Politically, it is huge to be able to provide convenience for people because they don’t want to wait in traffic.”
Two key aspects there are the widening of Highway 144 and a new interchange on I-95 at Belfast Keller Road.
Commissioners Chairman Carter Infinger said the Georgia Department of Transportation has assured him that bids would be sought for the Highway 144 project in March 2018.
“The money is there, but by the time they bought all the property they needed, some of the environmental studies had expired,” Infinger explained. “So they have to go back and do those again.”
The new interchange, which has been discussed for at least a decade, is a different story because it involves federal money.
“That would be a huge bottleneck reliever,” said Commissioner Steve Myers. “People living over there wouldn’t have to drive through town. They can jump on 95 if they want to go to Kroger, for example.”
More than 5,000 new homes could eventually be built along the Belfast River and Belfast Keller roads corridor due to developments that commissioners have already approved.
A recent transportation study showed that traffic on Belfast Keller Road is projected to grow from a current 5,000 vehicles per day to 59,000 per day in 2030 if the new interchange is built. Harris Trail will jump from 3,500 vehicles per day to 19,000. Highway 144 is expected to see an increase from the current 26,000 vpd to 51,000.
Improved and expanded infrastructure, however, needs to be funded. Commissioners discussed two methods to achieve this, including a countywide vote on a T-SPLOST levy in 2018. The Georgia Legislature now allows counties to individually seek such transportation funding. A regional T-SPLOST proposal in 2012 lost, with Bryan and Liberty counties being the only jurisdictions out of 10 in Coastal Georgia to approve the measure.
Taylor said a 0.75 levy would bring in close to $20 million over five years. It costs about $150,000 to resurface one mile of road and close to $1 million to repave a mile.
Another option to raise money for infrastructure improvement is impact fees on new housing developments.
Barry Hall, a county resident and expert on the issue who was formerly the finance director for Cobb County, told commissioners that such fees can help the county “recover a share of the cost of providing infrastructure to accommodate growth.”
About two dozen counties statewide and several cities already have impact fees in place.
“It’s a way for people moving in to share in the cost of the growth,” Myers said.
Hall said state law requires the fee to be based on the benefits received and can only be used for capital projects, not operations and maintenance. State law also limits the activities for which an impact fee can be charged to water and sewer, parks, libraries, public safety and roads.
To pursue charging impact fees, the county will have to develop a comprehensive capital improvement plan in order to determine how much to charge.