Gov. Nathan Deal this morning announced that tolls on Ga. Hwy. 400, the notoriously clogged freeway linking Atlanta to the northern 'burbs, would end next December.
The surprise move reverses a decision made by the governor's predecessor, Sonny Perdue, who extended the 50-cent fees shortly before leaving office.
Perdue was roundly criticized for breaking a promise made to voters two decades ago to lift the tolls once the state paid off debt to build the project. The former governor instead extended the tolls until 2020 to fund additional improvements along the freeway, including a connector between the toll road and I-85.
A local citizen group recently delivered a petition and data to Deal that found the the state agency in charge of Ga. 400 could pay off the debt sooner.
Says the governor in a press release:
“Ga. 400 commuters have paid more than their fair share already, and this is the earliest we can bring it down without paying a penalty for early repayment of the bonds,” Deal said. “When the Ga. 400 toll went up, the state of Georgia promised commuters that it wasn’t forever. If we don’t keep that promise, we lose the faith of the people. We face many challenges when it comes to paying for new capacity, particularly in the Atlanta region. There are no easy answers, no secret pots of money, but it is imperative that governments build the trust of their people. As your governor, I will keep the promises I make to you.”
The Ga. 400 toll was originally scheduled to come down after 20 years, ending in 2011. In 2010 — after then-candidate Deal promised to end the toll the following year — the state issued new bonds tied to the toll revenue in order to pay for needed improvements in the Ga. 400 corridor, including a new connector to I-85. The $40 million in new bonds were issued Dec. 1, 2010, and they mature June 1, 2017. But at the three-year mark the state can repay the bonds without a penalty. Further, the state needs time to plan for physically bringing down the gates and the dramatic restructuring that will be needed in the toll area.
“As I have said many times before: I inherited a situation where we could not bring down the gates immediately, and we face a situation where we would have to pay a penalty for early repayment,” Deal said. “This timeline gives commuters a finish line, while still allowing us to meet our obligations. Moving forward, we’ll need to continue to work on long-term solutions to congestion in the 400 corridor. And I look forward to doing that in a transparent fashion that commuters can trust.”
The big question is whether the July 31 regional transportation tax referendum played any role in Deal's decision. Many voters I've met have pointed to the state's broken promise on the Ga. 400 tolls as a major reason why they don't trust the government to spend the tax revenues. Now that the toll's been lifted, how much do you think this move helps the T-SPLOST's chances?
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