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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Buckhead Coalition pushing for end to Ga. 400 toll

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The CEOS and muckety-mucks behind the Buckhead Coalition have decided to use their considerable civic clout in demanding that the state honor its two-decade-old pledge to dismantle the toll plaza on Ga. 400 when the road construction bonds are paid off in July 2011.

"We'd all promised — the City Council, the state, the Buckhead Coalition — that if voters approved Georgia's first toll road, then the toll would go away once the debt was retired," explains BC president Sam Massell, whose group helped lobby for the toll as a funding mechanism for the then-proposed Ga. 400 extension, which runs from I-285 through Buckhead to I-85.

"Just once, I'd like to see politicians keep their word," the former Atlanta mayor says.

The 50-cent toll has been a huge success, financially speaking, bringing in more than $20 million a year. That's far more than is needed to cover the $9 million in annual debt payments and assorted maintenance on the road. The State Road and Tollway Authority, which oversees the project, even diverted some of the surplus revenue to buy land in Midtown a few years back, a move critics called a violation of the agreement that created the authority.

Massell says the toll plaza is such a cash cow that the state may need to be forced to shut it down. He says DOT Commissioner Gena Evans, since ousted, had told his group she planned to keep the tolls flowing after 2011

So, is this a simple case of Buckhead millionaires who don't like digging for quarters every time their chauffeurs get on the highway?

No such luck. The anti-toll movement — which was recently endorsed by the Fulton County Commission through a resolution — is actually part of a canny strategy to push the DOT into finally building a long-awaited ramp linking the south-bound lanes of Ga. 400 to the north-bound lanes of I-85.

The ramp was left off when the extension opened in the early '90s to save money. Its absence has meant that south-bound Ga. 400 commuters must exit at Sidney Marcus Boulevard in order to head toward Gwinnett — or cut through Buckhead neighborhoods.

Massell says his group would be willing to support the renewal of the Ga. 400 toll agreement for another few years if the proceeds were dedicated to building the I-85 ramp. It's a fair bet you'll be hearing a lot more about this in the months to come.

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