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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The murky future of tolls on Ga. 400

On Tuesday, GOP candidate for governor Nathan Deal vowed to eliminate the Georgia 400 tolls if elected.

Deal is hoping his promise of toll removal will push him ahead of Karen Handel, who's currently neck-and-neck with him in the race for the number two spot behind front-runner John Oxendine.

An excerpt from Deal's press release:

"As governor, I'll swing the sledgehammer to bring down the Buckhead Wall. The state has collected more than enough money to pay the bonds for the highway. We are now using the tolls of Georgia 400 drivers to pay for other road projects. That's not fair to the commuters in north Fulton and Forsyth counties. They've carried more than their fair share."

This message will surely strike a chord with commuters who have been shelling out their quarters twice a day since the tolls opened in 1993.

Prior to the extension of Ga. 400 south to Buckhead, the state agreed to limit the use of toll revenue to work directly related to the highway and to abolish the tolls after the road was paid off in summer 2011. However, the state has fallen short on these promises, and changes in legislation throughout the project's controversial history reveal that the toll is paying for a lot more than improvements to Ga. 400 and might be remaining indefinitely.

Back in 2003, former Gov. Roy Barnes directed some of the toll revenue to the Atlantic Station development. The State Road and Tollway Authority later ruled that the tolls could pay for improvements to any road, interchange or overpass that directly intersects the highway, or even along parallel routes that would directly affect mobility on Ga. 400.

But, according to a study released in February by the SRTA, the $22 million a year in revenue that the 50-cent toll brings in isn't its only benefit. The study says that the toll booth is necessary for reducing traffic congestion on the highway.

The SRTA argues that traffic will get worse, not better, if the toll booths are removed: "total daily [traffic] volume increases by 18.2 percent, dramatically reducing travel speeds to as low as 16 miles per hour and adding as much as 9 minutes to travel between I-85 and I-285 via GA 400."

Is a dollar worth avoiding a potential 18 more minutes spent sitting in traffic? Either way, the state needs to fulfill its promises.

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